Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Joe Bonamassa - Dust Bowl/Black Country Communion 2

Joe Bonamassa is a busy guy these days. He’s put out two albums this year, and it’s not even July yet. The first was his own Dust Bowl; the second was the sophomore effort from his other gig, Black County Communion, imaginatively titled 2. How Zeppelinesque, but I’m getting ahead of myself just a bit.
The most interesting sounding song is Black Lung Heartache. Acoustic Greek instruments [Baglama, Bouzouki, Tzouras] abound for the first 1:28 until the electric guitar takes over the riff. The acoustic instruments reappear at the 2:58 mark and ride out the song. The Greek instruments make another appearance on the title track, but unlike Black Lung Heartache they’re used more for coloring rather than to carry the song. Dust Bowl has a sort-of “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” twangy guitar on it along with some tasty slide soloing. That’s the kind of “light and shade” that made great recordings for Led Zeppelin. The most surprising song is John Hiatt’s Tennessee Plates. John Hiatt’s songs are uniformly very good, but that’s not the surprise. The surprise is not only the man himself joining the festivities on vocals, but also that JB would go for such a country-sounding song. Steve Nathan plays some fantastic piano. Vince Gill adds his six-string to top it off. Producer Kevin Shirley has Vince Gill’s Telecaster panned left, JB’s Les Paul panned right. If you want to hear the difference between a Fender and a Gibson, put on your headphones and listen to this song. Vince Gill also plays and sings on his lazy country shuffle Sweet Rowena. The last song is a cover of a song from Barbra Streisand [?!?] called Prisoner. Had I not read that somewhere else, I would have been blissfully ignorant, but I like it anyway. Black Country Communion cohort Glenn Hughes joins JB on Free’s Heartbreaker. It’s not as gritty as the Paul Rodgers original that I prefer, but it’s good enough that I foresee this becoming part of BCC’s live set.
When Black Country Communion [Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Derek Sherinian, and Jason Bonham] put out their first album, I wrote the following review for Amazon.com:
I bought this CD while on a business trip. I listened to it while on a long drive back to my hotel. Having heard what each of these musicians is capable of, I was primed and ready to like this CD. However, after one listen, I'm ready to sell it back. I've heard many great vocal performances from Glenn Hughes - this is not one of them. Most of his vocals here are not singing, they are shouting. He's so much better than this [think of his work with Tony Iommi or Gary Moore]. The first thought that came to mind was that he was trying to be the male version of Christina Aguilera. According to drummer Jason Bonham, it took ten days to record and mix this album. It sounds like it. I've heard Kevin Shirley's work with guitarist Joe Bonamassa, Iron Maiden and Rush. He has good-sounding productions. His production acumen deserts him here. As for keyboardist Derek Sherinian, why did he join this band? You can barely hear him in the mix. His talents are woefully under-utilized here. Jason Bonham does good work here. His drumming is one of the few bright spots of Black Country Communion. Joe Bonamassa is an excellent blues-rock player, but he's horribly miscast as a hard-rock player here. Don't quit your day job Joe. I expected much from this CD - it didn't deliver.
Surprisingly, every criticism I had of the first album has been addressed in the second. I’d love to think I had something to do with that, but that would be delusional. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with these very criticisms. The songwriting is better. The production is much better – it sounds like what I would expect from Kevin Shirley. Glenn Hughes keeps the vocal gymnastics to a minimum. No scales, no over-emoting, no yelping or whooping as he is prone to do – just the best vocals I’ve heard him perform in awhile. He’s not trying so hard to live up to his billing as “The Voice of Rock.” On this CD, he IS “The Voice of Rock.” Joe Bonamassa proves he can play hard rock in addition to the blues and ballads he does on his own. He’s got the fat Les Paul tone, he’s also got the acoustic light-and-shade thing going, so it’s as if he’s channeling Jimmy Page, only his playing is more precise. Jason Bonham was outstanding on the first CD, and nothing has changed here. His dad would be proud. As for Derek Sherinian, welcome to Black Country Communion - we can finally hear you! Speaking of which…
The first song, The Outsider, sees JB hammering out the riff until midway through the song, when he and Derek S. go into full Blackmore/Lord “Highway Star” solo-trading mode. On the DVD that accompanied the release the first BCC album, producer Kevin Shirley said this kind of dynamic was what he had in mind in putting JB and Derek S. together, and here that concept comes to fruition. Save Me is a song Jason Bonham brought with him from his aborted collaboration with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. If there are any Zeppelin comparisons to be made, look no farther than this song – think of a cross-between of Kashmir and In The Light from Physical Graffiti. I like this one a lot. The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall is JB’s first vocal on “2”. The title alone is another reminder of Led Zeppelin [The Battle of Evermore, anyone?]. The song is a mixture of electric and acoustic sounds. It’s reminiscent of his work on Dust Bowl, but just a tad heavier. There’s just something strange about a native New Yorker singing a song about a Roman wall built in the north of England, but it’s a fine song anyway. For the heavy songs, look at Smokestack Woman and Man in the Middle. Glenn Hughes is in fine voice on both. Then there’s Little Secret, a slow blues tune Glenn sings about relapses into substance abuse. The blues is a different twist for Glenn, but it works here. Crossfire is similar to an older Glenn Hughes song, Soul Mover. If you liked Soul Mover, you’ll like this one. “2” closes with Cold. It is a sufficiently epic closer that has me hitting “replay” often.
2011 is a good year to be a fan of Joe Bonamassa. I recommend Dust Bowl and Black Country Communion 2 highly.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Allman Brothers Band - The Revival Part II

July 1991 saw the release of more new Allman Brothers music. The album was called Shades of Two Worlds. After the band finished touring for Seven Turns, they let Johnny Neel go and they returned to being a six-piece for awhile. But then they added a percussionist, Marc Quiñones. Butch Trucks “stole” him from Spyro Gyra. Again with Tom Dowd producing, Shades of Two Worlds again run the gamut through rock, electric and acoustic blues, and jazz. End of the Line is a song Gregg Allman finished that Warren Haynes and Allen Woody started. It’s the familiar tale of what Gregg Allman has put himself through [mountains I have climbed could have killed a thousand men..]. It’s a very tough hard-rocking song they still play today. To me it’s the song that put the “Allman” back in the Allman Brothers band. Gregg contributes a slow electric blues number, Get On With Your Life. The one song that Dickey Betts sings is Desert Blues. He wrote that song for all the people who served in Operation Desert Shield/Storm. I thought “wow! A song that could be about me!” Dickey’s instrumental contribution [co-written with Warren] is Kind of Bird. As you might suspect, it’s inspired by Charlie Parker. They still play that one from time to time, even if it is a “Dickey” tune. The Allman Brothers showed a sign of things to come when they played MTV’s Unplugged show. I recorded that show and I replayed it so many times I wore out the tape. It being a half-hour show [22 minutes when you cut the commercials], they played four songs – Midnight Rider / Melissa / Seven Turns / Come On In My Kitchen. That last song is from the late, great Robert Johnson. The band liked how the Unplugged session went they recorded the song, acoustic arrangement and all, for Shades of Two Worlds. It was a good change of pace for a band that has been known for long electric jams. Speaking of which there is one of those jams on Shades. It’s called Nobody Knows, another song written by Dickey Betts but sung by Gregg. It’s about eleven minutes long, and only High Falls [from Win, Lose or Draw] is a longer studio cut. As good as this version was, when they put out a live version on An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band – First Set [1992], it absolutely smoked. It was sixteen and a half minutes of jamming bliss. It would not be out of place on At Fillmore East.

End of the Line

Come On In My Kitchen

Nobody Knows [Live]

At this time, Carol and I picked up from Northern California and moved to the Washington DC area. Shades had come out just before we left California, so we knew the Allman Brothers would be touring soon. Sure enough, we found where they were going to be playing and when, bough two tickets and went to see them for the third time. Here’s the setlist from that show:

August 27, 1991 – Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD
Hot ‘Lanta / Statesboro Blues / Blue Sky / End of the Line / Nobody Knows / Kind of Bird / Low Down Dirty Mean / Melissa* / Come On In My Kitchen* / Midnight Rider* / Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad* / Hoochie Coochie Man / Get On With Your Life / In Memory of Elizabeth Reed / Revival / Jessica / Whipping Post

Such was the popularity of the Unplugged format, they played a four song acoustic set. It was something different for them – they hadn’t played any acoustic sets when Duane and Berry were alive, and by the time they were big successes, they were playing stadium shows where nobody could hear an acoustic set. It was hot, it was muggy and sweaty, but we suffered happily as we got to hear some more Allman Brothers music live. Soon, the rest of the world would get to hear more live Allman Brothers performances because they recorded several shows from the Shades tour.

An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band – First Set:
End of the Line / Blue Sky / Get On With Your Life / Southbound / Midnight Blues / Nobody Knows / Dreams / Revival

The song selection was kind of curious – there’s new stuff from the previous studio album, there’s a new acoustic blues number [Midnight Blues], there’s old stuff [Blue Sky, Southbound], and there’s stuff from their Jurassic period [Dreams, Revival]. Get On With Your Life was ok, but I thought if they would add a new slow blues number it would be Gambler’s Roll. Warren’s slide solos on Dreams and Blue Sky are a bit repetitive and after one or two listens you don’t want to here them anymore. But Southbound is another matter. Gregg sang the original on Brothers and Sisters, but for this version the band played the arrangement Dickey had been playing with his band before the Allman Brothers’ “revival.” It’s the same arrangement Carol and I heard him play in 1986 at Denver’s Rainbow Music Hall with Lonnie Mack. The playing on Southbound and Nobody Knows make this CD worth buying in and of themselves. When I saw the title of the album had the words “first set” in it, I assumed there would be a second set sometime. Then several months later the Allman Brothers put out an all-acoustic charity CD to help support the International Rhett Syndrome Association [IRSA]. There were only 15,000 copies made [I have one of them]. Was this the “second set”? As it turned out later, the answer to that question was “no.” But it would suffice for awhile until a proper “second set” would be released.

Southbound [Live]
Midnight Blues [Live]

The IRSA Acoustic Set:
Come On In My Kitchen / Seven Turns / Midnight Rider / Southbound / In Memory of Elizabeth Reed / Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad / Melissa / Midnight Blues

Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad [Live]

After 1992, there was silence. Being the prolific writer he is, Warren Haynes recorded an album with Chuck Leavell producing called Tales of Ordinary Madness. I found a copy while I was stationed in Korea. It’s a fairly good album, full of songs that would not fit on an Allman Brothers album. The Allman Brothers did tour in 1993, but they ran into a problem: Dickey Betts. When the band reformed in 1989, Dickey had a bit of a drinking problem. He said for the first couple of years it was ok, but the third year was a nightmare. It all came to a head before a gig in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1993. He and his wife had a domestic disturbance and somebody called the cops. When they arrived, he pushed one of them. He was arrested for assault and for resisting arrest. While he cooled his heels in jail, the band went to the next tour stop without him. Dickey was the musical director of the group, and with him gone off the rails the band was in disarray. For one night, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Zakk Wylde [?!?} filled in for Dickey. He didn’t quite fill in, so the band later got David Grissom from John Mellencamp’s band, and when he had to go back to his day job, guitarist Jack Pearson got the temporary gig. Dickey went to rehab to dry out and sort out the demons that were bothering him. After Dickey got his act back together, it was time to do another album. The title: Where It All Begins.

The Allman Brothers don’t like recording studios. Playing in live is their thing. After a long search for a good place to record their next album, they found a place. It was at Burt Reynold’s place. It had a soundstage and they thought it the perfect place to record this album. As it turned out, Where It All Begins was a very good album. It has another very long Dickey Betts song called Back Where It All Begins that is much in the same vein as Nobody Knows from Shades, but not so intense. Curiously, Dickey had a medium-tempo blues called Change My Way of Living that was written before the Saratoga Springs incident. But clearly Dickey could see what was coming. But for me, the best sign of all that all was better in the world of the Allman Brothers was seeing that Gregg Allman had a hand in writing four songs – All Night Train, Sailin’ ‘Cross the Devil’s Sea, What’s Done Is Done, and Temptation is a Gun. The first is another tale of Gregg’s struggle with drug addiction with an explanation of why he had the problem in the first place – took a little trip to keep from going insane, spent the rest of my life on the all night train. The other three songs are cautionary tales about the dangers of women and rowdy behavior [as HE sees them]. Dickey threw in Mean Woman Blues [sung by Warren] and No One To Run With, a Bo Diddley-style lamentation that friends from long ago are disappearing. All in all it’s a very good album. What is interesting are two songs that didn’t make the album – Rocking Horse and The Same Thing. Rocking Horse is a Warren Haynes original [written with Gregg, Allen and Jack Pearson] that the band had trouble getting down, and The Same Thing is an old Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters tune the band had similar problems with. By the time they went out on tour to support the album, they had worked out the kinks in The Same Thing and played it for us to hear.

All Night Train

Sailin’ ‘Cross the Devil’s Sea
No One To Run With

So there we were - another album, another tour. We saw them again at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1994. Here's the setlist:
August 26, 1994 - Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD
Sailin’ ‘Cross the Devil’s Sea / Statesboro Blues / Blue Sky / The Same Thing* / Change My Way of Living / Soulshine / Seven Turns / Midnight Rider / Jessica / No One To Run With / Back Where It All begins / In Memory of Elizabeth Reed / One Way Out / Whipping Post
*Duane Betts, guitar
So with another tour came another album – the Second Set I had been awaiting for years. The madness to their method became clear to me – they’d have two sets of new, old and really old songs that flowed together as a single work. If you put the first two sets together, the concept works [save for an acoustic Elizabeth Reed]. The standout track [IMHO] is Warren Haynes’ Soulshine, which is sung by Gregg. It is better than its studio counterpart from Where It All Begins.
An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band – Second Set:
Sailin’ ‘Cross the Devil’s Sea / You Don’t Love Me / Soulshine / Back Where It All Begins / In Memory of Elizabeth Reed* / The Same Thing / No One Left To Run With / Jessica
*Acoustic – same version as was on the limited edition IRSA set

The Same Thing


Once again Carol and I got to see the Allman Brothers on tour that summer, but this time it was with a twist. Back then I heard through this “new” thing called the Internet that the Allman Brothers were beginning to mix up their sets. They wouldn’t be playing the same songs in the same order night after night, so we decided to get tickets for shows on back-to-back nights. That’s the only time we’ve ever done that. As you can see for yourself below, we weren’t disappointed.
July 30, 1995 – Nissan Pavilion, Bristow, VA
Don’t Want You No More -> It’s Not My Cross to bear / Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More / Ramblin’ Man / Good Clean Fun / Sailin’ ‘Cross the Devil’s Sea / The Same Thing* / Southbound* / Soulshine / End of the Line / Stormy Monday / Back Where It All Begins / Jessica / Hoochie Coochie Man / One Way Out / Whipping Post
*Chris Anderson on third guitar

August 1, 1995 – Classic Amphitheatre, Richmond, VA
Statesboro Blues / Midnight Rider / You Don’t Love Me / Blue Sky / What’s Done Is Done / Soulshine / The Same Thing / Dreams / Change My Way of Living / End of the Line / Back Where It All Begins / No One To Run With / In Memory of Elizabeth Reed / One Way Out / Whipping Post

At the Nissan Pavilion, we heard the best version of Southbound we would ever hear [and we’d heard some damn good ones up to this point]. Chris Anderson [now of The Outlaws] joined the Brothers for The Same Thing and Southbound. When it was time for the three guitarists to trade solos on Southbound, we were all transported to another plane of consciousness. I’m not a big fan of God, but during that performance there was definitely something otherworldly happening. After seventeen minutes, both the band and the crowd were exhilarated. The only word I can find to describe what I heard is “amazing.”

Following this burst of activity from the Allman Brothers [three studio albums, three live albums, seven tours], there was only silence from the band. Then I found out that Warren and bassist Allen Woody, along with Dickey Betts drummer Matt Abts, formed there own power trio called Gov’t Mule. While touring with the Allman Brothers, Warren and Allen talked about how there weren’t any power trio bands like there were in the late 60s/early 70s [Cream, Mountain, the Jimi Hendrix Experience], so they and Matt Abts formed their own group to keep them busy when the Allman Brothers were inactive. As the Allman Brothers’ inactivity went on, Gov’t Mule decided to record their debut CD, imaginatively titled Gov’t Mule. As promised, Gov’t Mule was full of power-trio greatness. Allen Woody’s bass was much more prominent in the mix than it had been on the Allman Brothers albums. Gov’t Mule included Rocking Horse, the song that didn’t make it on to Where It All Begins. It began with the a capella Grinnin’ in Your Face [Son House] that segued into Mother Earth. It has the bass-driven Mule which is still a Mule concert favorite [it’s played with Van Morrison’s I’ve Been Working shoehorned in the middle], and a pretty good cover of Free’s Mr. Big, complete with bass solo. Left Coast Groovies is a tribute to Frank Zappa. Gov’t Mule is a good listen with only a hint of things to come.

Rocking Horse


Stormy seas were on the horizon for the Allman Brothers. They toured, but after Where It All Begins they stopped recording. I don’t know why this happened. It could be they had trouble with Epic as they had with Arista. It could be that Gregg and Dickey couldn’t see eye to eye on things. Whatever, the reason, it happened. And when that happened, Warren and Allen got restless, fed up and left the Allman Brothers after the Beacon run in March 1997. Their mission was to concentrate on Gov’t Mule full-time. They left the band and didn’t look back.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Allman Brothers Band - The Revival Part I

After two sub-par albums with Arista, the Allman Brothers broke up for the second time, this time it felt like it was for good. Punk and disco had come and gone, New Wave became the big thing. Acts like the Allman Brothers couldn’t get arrested. Nobody wanted to hear their kind of blues-based rock music. Then something extraordinary happened. A guitar whiz from Dallas by way of Austin named Stevie Ray Vaughan caught fire. Suddenly blues-based music was hip again. Stevie Ray’s big brother Jimmie’s band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds got a record deal with Epic. They had a massive hit with Tuff Enuff. Before we knew it, both Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts had record deals with Epic. In 1987 Gregg put out I’m No Angel. It reeked of 1980s production techniques [as did the follow-up Before the Bullets Fly], but the spirit was there, and at that time that was good enough for me. He did a new recording of Don't Want You No More/It's Not My Cross to Bear, and I never tire of his horn-laden Anything Goes. Another stand-out track is Faces Without Names. Carol and I ended up seeing him open for SRV in Pueblo, Colorado the day after we got married in 1987.

Dickey Betts put out an album in 1988 called Pattern Disruptive. It served as a blueprint for Allman Brothers albums to come. The pretty, countrified sound from his albums with Great Southern was long gone. He got himself some Marshall amps and turned up the volume. I can attribute this to the addition of guitarist Warren Haynes. Finally Dickey had an on-stage foil who could push him every night. Warren is absolutely fearless when going toe-to-toe with other guitar players. Dickey hadn’t had that since the days of Duane. In addition to Warren Haynes, keyboardist Johnny Neel was also in Dickey’s band. There are many good songs on Pattern Disruptive, but there is one great one – the instrumental Duane’s Tune.

Duane's Tune - Dickey Betts

In 1988, Polydor decided to put out what was unusual at the time – the box set. Up until then there was only one – Bob Dylan’s Biograph. The object of their first box was Eric Clapton. His set was called Crossroads, and was a very thorough compilation of music EC had done between the Yardbirds, through the Cream, Blind Faith and Derek & the Dominoes years, and his solo work up until 1988. Crossroads sold by the truckload and began the box set trend that continues today. Polydor decided the success of Crossroads would give them another opportunity to put out another box set from someone equal to Eric Clapton’s stature. Polydor’s choice for the next box set was the Allman Brothers Band. Producer Bill Levenson, who compiled Crossroads, brought together lots of Allman Brothers music for their box set, simply titled Dreams. This four-disc set had music from the Allman Joys, the Hour Glass, the Second Coming [featuring Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley], the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, and Dickey Betts [with and without Great Southern]. Included on Dreams were the aforementioned I’m No Angel and Duane’s Tune. To my surprise, the band agreed to re-group and tour to support the release of Dreams. We finally got to see one of my favorite bands in Sacramento. The band included the four original surviving members [Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, and Jaimoe], Warren Haynes and Johnny Neel from Dickey Betts’ band, and newcomer Allen Woody on bass. We finally got to see my favorite band [outside the Beatles, of course]. Here’s what the setlist looked like:

August 11, 1989 – Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA
Don’t Want You No More -> It’s Not My Cross To Bear / Statesboro Blues / Blue Sky / I’m No Angel / Duane’s Tune / Trouble No More / Blues Ain’t Nothin’ / In Memory of Elizabeth Reed / One Way Out / Melissa / Just Before the Bullets Fly / Dreams / Southbound* / Jessica / Les Brers in A Minor / Whipping Post
*Berry Duane Oakley, bass

I figured the Dreams tour was just a one-off thing, but in July 1990, Seven Turns appeared. Produced by Tom Dowd and recorded at the same studio as Eat a Peach and Layla [Criteria Studios in Miami], Seven Turns was by far their best work since Brothers and Sisters [1973]. Seven Turns has that same hard sound as Dickey's Pattern Disruptive, but there are elements in Seven Turns that make it quintessential Allman Brothers. There are elements of country, blues, jazz, and rock mixed all together on this record that set this band apart from its contemporaries. Bassist Allen Woody [RIP] was like Berry Oakley [RIP] in that he played bass like a third lead guitarist. Warren had the unenviable task of playing Duane Allman’s parts live. But the band had such faith in him they didn’t tell him what or what not to play. Warren knew the fans expected to hear some of Duane’s stuff note-for-note [such as the intro to Statesboro Blues], but he had the leeway to play his own interpretations of Duane’s work if the mood struck him. On Seven Turns he was free to play his own music, and there was plenty to play. Jaimoe and Butch Trucks played together so well you wouldn’t know they had been apart for nine years. Of the nine tunes on the album, Warren Haynes had a hand in writing four of them [he even got to sing one of them – Loaded Dice]. Gregg Allman had only one songwriting credit [Good Clean Fun], but he was in fine voice as he sang and played the Hammond organ. Johnny Neel, also from Dickey Betts’ band, provides piano and harmonica.

The guiding light and musical director for this album was Dickey Betts. Of the nine songs, seven of them are his. Highlights include the country-ish title track. Warren Haynes provides a fantastic slide solo that introduced him to Allman Brothers fans in the same way Chuck Leavell did with his piano solo on Jessica. The icing on the cake is the call-and-response vocals of Dickey and Gregg. They had never done a vocal arrangement that way, and here they did it perfectly. No Allman Brothers album would be complete without an instrumental from Dickey Betts. In this case it’s True Gravity. Dickey wrote most of it on one of Berry Oakley’s basses, which is why you’ve got the eight-string Alembic lead bass from Allen Woody [he played the four-string live]. Warren threw in the middle section where he does a solo. And to show how good these guys are, they changed up the time signature in that middle section, with Butch playing half-time while Jaimoe plays double time. The band got to play a truncated version of True Gravity [along with Good Clean Fun] on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was still the host. As a bonus, Doc Severinson and the orchestra joined the band on True Gravity, and the results were fantastic. Carson loved it! He didn’t usually let guests play more than one song, but with the Allman Brothers he made an exception. A true fan he was – I still miss Carson.

True Gravity [The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson]

Warren and Johnny Neel contribute a good slow blues tune called Gambler's Roll. The Allman Brothers still play it in their sets on occasion to this day. Johnny Neel also contributed It Ain't Over Yet. Dickey said the band had trouble nailing this one down because half the band thought it should go like Hotel California, the other half though it should go like The Thrill Is Gone.

On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. I knew that sometime shortly after that I would have to deploy to Saudi Arabia to support Operation Desert Shield. Luckily, I got to see the Allman Brothers at Cal Expo again before I deployed. When I did deploy I took a copy of Seven Turns with me. It was my little piece of Americana while I was deployed to that faraway place. Here’s the setlist from the 1990 show at Cal Expo:

August 5, 1990– Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA
Don’t Want You No More -> It’s Not My Cross To Bear / Statesboro Blues / Blue Sky / Low Down Dirty Mean / Seven Turns / Good Clean Fun / Gambler’s Roll / In Memory of Elizabeth Reed / One Way Out / True Gravity / Ramblin’ Man / Southbound / Jessica / Whipping Post

Here ends my first chapter on the revival of the Allman Brothers Band. Coming next: Shades of Two Worlds, Where It All Begins, more live albums and the birth of Gov’t Mule.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Levon Helm - Ramble at the Ryman

The Band had three vocalists – Levon Helm [the only American in a band with mostly Canadians], Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel. Levon Helm sang my favorite Band songs [Up on Cripple Creek, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Ophelia, The Weight, The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, Mystery Train (with Paul Butterfield)]. As the lone American, Levon witnessed traveling minstrel shows as a kid growing up in Arkansas. One such minstrel show was the F.S. Wolcott's Rabbit's Foot Minstrel Show, immortalized in The Band’s The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show [W.S. Walcott rolled off the tongue easier..]. The Rabbit's Foot Company (also known as Rabbit Foot Minstrels) was a long running minstrel and variety troupe that toured as a tent show between the 1900's and 1950's. The company had a brass band and traveled in its own private railroad car. The show included minstrel performances, dancers, circus acts, comedy and musical ensemble pieces. It was owned and operated totally by African-Americans. After the minstrel shows, there would be the rambles. In The Last Waltz, Levon talked about the Midnight Rambles of his youth:

“After the finale, they’d have the midnight ramble. With young children off to bed, the festivities resumed, but with a rowdier feel: the songs would get a little bit juicier, the jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times.”

Toward the end of The Band’s run in the 1990s, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer. He was told he’d have to have a laryngectomy, which would deprive him of his voice and his livelihood. Levon opted for radiation treatments. For awhile Levon was voiceless, and because of his medical bills he was almost homeless too. According to Levon, "You got to pick one -- pay your medical bills or pay the mortgage. Most people can't do both, and I'm no different." So before the bank took the house and the barn, Levon would start having Midnight Rambles like he saw when he was a boy. Levon’s friends [and Levon has LOTS of friends] would show up and play the shows with him. As a result, Levon’s medical bills were paid, he got to keep the house and the barn, and he also re-started his career. He’s recorded two highly acclaimed studio albums, Dirt Farmer [2008] and Electric Dirt [2009].

Levon Helm still keeps the spirit of the rambles alive with his weekly Midnight Rambles at his barn/recording studio in Woodstock, N.Y. He’s been doing this since the early 2000s. Over the years the rambles featured guests too numerous to mention here. Every now and then Levon and his band take the show on the road. In 2008 they took the show to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Like the rambles held in Woodstock, this ramble also had many guests. Lucky for us, the show was recorded too. Buddy Miller showed up to sing his own Wide River to Cross, which Levon recorded for Dirt Farmer. John Hiatt dropped in to sing Rick Danko’s parts on the show’s finale, The Weight. Larry Campbell, the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, added a touch of the Grateful Dead with Deep Elem Blues. He owned The Band’s Chest Fever, which he not only sang but also provided a nimble Garth Hudson fugue on his guitar. This guy has played with Dylan, Phil Lesh & Friends, and now Levon Helm. Why is this man not a star in his own right? Teresa Williams [Mrs. Larry Campbell] offered a sassy Time Out for the Blues. Bluesman Little Sammy Davis chimed in with Fannie Mae and Scratch My Back.

Not to be overly critical, but why Sheryl Crow? How come she keeps popping up as a “guest” with other people [the Stones, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, etc]? Maybe it’s just me but her voice sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. Does she have pictures of all these people that are suitable for blackmail? She sang a duet with Levon on The Band’s Evangeline, but she sounded lost. She sounded ok on the Carter Family’s No Depression In Heaven, but Emmylou Harris she is not. The keyboard player Brian Mitchell sang a very raspy [almost TOO raspy] The Shape I’m In. If he tried to sound like Richard Manuel, he missed the mark. That aside, the horn section sounded great, and Larry Campbell played a blazing solo.

I like the tracklist. There are just enough Band songs to keep things rooted in Levon’s own history [six], but there enough is other material to keep this ramble from being too much of a nostalgia trip. Levon sings his share of the songs, but there are enough good singers to insure Levon doesn’t have to carry all the vocal weight by himself. Levon’s voice is not what it once was, but considering what he’s been through this CD [along with Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt] is proof that miracles can and do happen. This is a great-sounding set played by people who sounded like they were having a lot of fun doing it. Ramble at the Ryman is a "must buy." Buy Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt too. No fan of The Band should be without them. With these releases Levon’s keeping the spirit of The Band alive.

The tracklist
Ophelia / Back to Memphis / Fannie Mae / Scratch My Back / Evangeline / No Depression In Heaven / Wide River to Cross / Deep Elem Blues / Anna Lee / Rag Mama Rag / Time Out for the Blues / A Train Robbery / The Shape I’m In / Chest Fever / The Weight

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Neil Young - Rust Never Sleeps

Awhile ago I wrote on one of my favorite Neil Young albums, On the Beach. I thought I’d step back into the time machine and look at another Neil Young gem. Rust Never Sleeps is one of those few albums that one gets to see two sides of Neil Young. One side is the acoustic folk hippie first encountered on Harvest. The other side is the future “Godfather of Grunge” with a little bit of punk thrown in for good measure. This album came out in June 1979, when vinyl was still king and there were two sides to an album. On Rust Never Sleeps, the two sides of Neil are neatly divided. Side 1 has all the acoustic songs, one of which was recorded circa 1975 [Pocahontas] and the other recorded with Nicolette Larson [RIP] during the Comes a Time period [Sail Away]. This is the second time where Neil uses the device of using the same song to begin and end the album [Tonight’s the Night being the first]. He’s use this device again with 1989’s Freedom [Rockin’ in the Free World]. The album begins with the acoustic My My, Hey Hey [Out of the Blue], and the electric version Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black]. Except for the aforementioned Pocahontas and Sail Away, the rest of Rust Never Sleeps was recorded live at various venues in 1978. The audiences were for the most part mixed out, but from time to time you can hear them.

In My My, Hey Hey [Out of the Blue] Neil has two rock icons on his mind – Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten. Elvis died only a year before these tracks were recorded [the King is gone but he’s not forgotten…], but with the advent of punk the torch had been passed to another generation [this is the story of Johnny Rotten…]. He laments its better to burn out like the punks than to fade away like Elvis. I’m not sure about Thrasher, but there does seem to be commentary on Crosby, Stills & Nash [they had the best selection, they were poisoned with protection, there was nothing that they needed, nothing left to find…so I got bored and left them there, they were just dead weight to me, better down the road without that load…]. Ride My Llama is just plain strange, with Neil playing guitars with aliens and then deciding to ride his llama from Peru to Texarkana. Pocahontas, one of Neil Young’s most enduring songs [and one of my favorites of his] is a track from the lost album Chrome Dreams. It is Neil’s lament on the condition of the American Indian, with references to American pop culture thrown in [Marlon Brando, the Astrodome, televisions, etc]. These days he plays the song with an electric arrangement. I like the acoustic treatment here much better. As he tells the Indians’ tale of woe he sings the song from the first-person point of view as if he was an Indian himself. Did he ever get to sleep with Pocahontas to see how she felt? He wonders if he and Pocahontas get to talk with Marlon Brando [he who sent an Indian actress to refuse his Oscar™ for The Godfather] around a campfire about TV and other stuff. I like Neil’s surrealism. J His use of the surreal is one of his enduring qualities. Its like he channels Salvador Dali at times. Sail Away is a lovely duet with Nicolette Larson. It would have fit in right along the songs from Comes a Time. That’s good enough for me.
Powderfinger kicks off Side 2. Neil’s lyrics immediately take us back to a distant time, perhaps right after the Civil War [look out Mama there’s a white boat comin’ up the river with a big red beacon and a flag and a man on the rail, I think you’d better call John cause it don’t look like he’s here to deliver the mail…and it’s less than a mile away, I hope they didn’t come to stay, it’s got numbers on the side and a gun and it’s makin’ big waves]. Whose white boat was it – the Feds? Again told from the first-person point of view [Daddy’s gone, my brothers out huntin’ in the mountain], the protagonist is the 22-year old guy left alone to do the thinking, only to find himself killed by the guys “when the first shot hit the dock.” Were Neil and his family moonshiners? The song doesn’t really say. This is another NY favorite of mine [two in one album!]. Welfare Mothers is very repetitious – the riff, the background vocals [Welfare Mothers make better lovers…]. What else are you going to do with a song about getting it on with divorced moms on welfare? It’s a bit of harmless fun. Sedan Delivery is more in the punk aesthetic. But it’s all stream of consciousness, meeting Caesar and Cleo in the Milky Way, getting away from it all, meeting a woman with varicose veins, etc. His sedan delivery job was really hard to find, as he tells us over and over again. It’s more harmless fun. The Ramones would be proud. The finale is Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black], the counterpoint to My My, Hey Hey [Out of the Blue]. End the album as begun, only with high volume, much distortion, phenobarbital riffs.
Back when Rolling Stone magazine was a music magazine and its editors’ opinions meant something to some people, they named Rust Never Sleeps their Album of the Year for 1979. After this and the live album Live Rust that came out four months later, Neil’s artistic output became both erratic and extremely frustrating to his fans. To wit, NY wouldn’t return to this standard of excellence until 1989’s Freedom. Regardless of what came later, Rust Never Sleeps is a testament to Neil Young’s validity in the face of the onslaught that was punk. A must have!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Neil Young - A Treasure

For most of his career, Neil Young has followed a fairly predictable path. He would alternate quiet, acoustic-based albums with noisy rock and roll albums with Crazy Horse [or a reasonable facsimile thereof]. The 1980s were an interesting time musically, with the advent of MTV. New Wave replaced disco as the next big thing. Michael Jackson became a huge star, as did Prince and Bruce Springsteen. If you’re a Neil Young fan, the 1980s were a very frustrating time. In 1979, NY came out with both Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust. True to form, Neil put out the mostly acoustic Hawks & Doves in 1980, followed by Reactor 1981. But after Reactor, things got very strange. NY left Reprise, his long-time label, and signed with Geffen Records. In 1982, Trans appeared. With its vocoders, synthesizers, computerized drums and such, one could only wonder “what the hell is this?” I thought “ok, this is just Neil being Neil, he can do whatever he wants.” The following year came Everybody’s Rockin’. Instead of acoustic stuff or Crazy Horse, this was a rockabilly record [?!?]. Ok, first computers, then 1950s retro-rock – this only added to the “WTF factor.” Not only were his fans confused, so was his record company. They were so confused they sued NY for not making “Neil Young music.”

Did NY return to making “Neil Young music”? Well, sort of. His next release was Old Ways. This was a country record. But I could tolerate that because NY had been in this kind of territory before, with 1972’s Harvest and 1978’s Comes a Time. Geffen didn’t think much of it – it wasn’t pop enough. It’s more traditional country than anything he had done before. This was just more of Neil Young being “artistically uncharacteristic.” Such was the relationship between NY and Geffen that he once told them “quit telling me what to do or I’ll turn into George Jones.” And knowing Neil Young, he would have done it too. This brings me to the real subject of this blog – Neil Young’s newest CD, A Treasure. A live document of the Old Ways period, A Treasure mixed some of the Old Ways material and re-worked some of his older material to fit in the country music context. As one looks over the tracklist of A Treasure one will note there are several previously unreleased songs [noted below with *]. NY was more than capable of acting on his threat to turn into George Jones.

The tracklist
Amber Jean*/ Are You Ready For The Country / It Might Have Been*/ Bound For Glory*/ Let Your Fingers Do The Walking*/ Flying On The Ground Is Wrong / Motor City / Soul Of A Woman*/ Get Back To The Country / Southern Pacific / Nothing Is Perfect* / Grey Riders*

This CD got its title from Ben Keith [RIP], who remarked that the music contained therein was “a treasure” once he and Neil Young found it in the archives. The International Harvesters boasted some of the cream of Nashville musicians. Longtime co-hort Ben Keith on steel guitar, Rufus Thibodeaux [RIP] on fiddle, keyboard player extraordinaire Spooner Oldham, pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Karl Himmel all played with the International Harvesters.

A Treasure contains several pleasant surprises. The first among these is the old Buffalo Springfield song Flying On The Ground Is Wrong. One review said this sounds more like the Flying Burrito Brothers than the Buffalo Springfield. I have to agree – after one listen I could picture Gram Parsons singing this tune. Are You Ready For the Country sounds a lot tougher than it originally did on Harvest. Other surprises include Motor City and Southern Pacific. These versions are much better here than what was done earlier with Crazy Horse on Reactor. The addition of Rufus Thibodeaux’s fiddle to Southern Pacific adds the spook that was missing from Reactor. The final song, Grey Riders, is unlike anything I’ve heard from Neil Young. There’s plenty of electric guitar courtesy of his “Old Black” Les Paul, but the tone is much cleaner without the over-amped distortion one is used to hearing from him. The high volume is there, just not the distortion. Country music doesn’t sound like Grey Riders, but Neil makes “Old Black” work well with Rufus’ fiddle. Neil hadn’t abandoned his rock roots altogether. During this “country” period I saw Neil Young and the International Harvesters perform on Austin City Limits. Back then all you saw on that program was country acts. The audience was just eating up all the music NY was feeding them, but at the very end you could see many looks of confusion on the faces in the audience when he strapped on “Old Black” and played Down by the River. Grey Riders would have left a similar look on their faces that day. If he put out more stuff like that I would have been ok with it – it’s that good. It was much better than Trans or Everybody’s Rockin’. But given the times when Neil Young was a musical chameleon, that prospect would have been highly unlikely.

A Treasure comes from a strange period in Neil Young’s history, but it is a very good listen. At the time of its recording, Old Ways stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. Had this live companion album been released during that time it too would have stuck out. That wouldn't be the case now. He would go back to that countrified sound on Harvest Moon, Prairie Wind and Silver & Gold, so twenty-five years later the live document A Treasure is not really out of place in NY’s catalog. It is a welcome addition.

Flying on the Ground is Wrong

Southern Pacific

Grey Riders