Monday, May 25, 2015

Tony's Picks - BB King

Many tributes have been written about BB King since his passing on May 14th.  I can’t possibly match the eloquent tributes to the man who came to symbolize the blues to audiences worldwide.  But I can talk about his records that I like the most.  Of all the time BB King recorded and played for live audiences, my favorite era of his music is bookended by two live albums – Live at the Regal (1965) and Live in Cook County Jail (1971).  Live at the Regal has been cited by many critics as BB’s best live album, and one of the best live albums by anybody.  It has the songs Sweet Little Angel, It’s My Own Fault, and How Blue Can You Get?, the same three songs recorded as a medley by a group called The Hourglass.  For those who know your music history, The Hourglass was a forerunner to the Allman Brothers Band.  At the time they were under contract to Liberty Records, who allowed them to record only songs picked by the record company.  The band didn’t like the material Liberty provided them.  They booked studio time and recorded their BB King Medley, the result of which can be found on the first Duane Allman anthology as well as the ABB’s box set Dreams.  It was an important milestone for what became the Allman Brothers Band, but I digress.  My point here is the influence BB King had on two white kids from Daytona Beach, Florida.  

Confessin’ the Blues (1966), Blues on Top of Blues (1968) and Lucille (1968) each have the same horn-laden, big-band blues sound.  It’s all good stuff, but the horns get in the way of hearing BB wail on Lucille.  That having been said, there is the title track to Lucille is a ten-minute guitar track that tells the story of what his guitar means to him, and how his guitar got its name.  When BB isn’t telling the story of his life, he lets Lucille “sing.” The only music Lucille likes to play is the blues.  The funny thing about Lucille is the cover.  From 1959 until his death, Lucille was a Gibson ES-355, but the guitar on the cover is a Gibson Les Paul.  But I quibble…the music contained therein is great.

Joel Selvin used to be the pop music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.  Recently he published a story about “a night at the Fillmore changed B.B. King’s career forever.”  The night in question was in February 1967.  He had played the Fillmore West several times before this night, but when he stepped out on stage that evening he saw something he’d never seen before – a roomful of white hippies.  BB King had played to exclusively black audiences [older black audiences at that] until this show.  Selvin described BB’s career at that time as “in decline” because the music he played [the blues] was a reminder to black audiences of the bad times and of Jim Crow.  Soul music was now the sound of the black community.  But the hippies liked the blues, and they liked them hard.  They had taken to Albert King’s guitar-driven blues, and they liked what they heard from BB King as well.  The record company took notice of the “new” demographic to whom BB King appealed.

In 1969, BB’s record label pared him with producer Bill Szymczyk, who later went on to work with the likes of The James Gang, Joe Walsh, The Eagles and The Who.  The two did four albums together, the first of which was Live & Well (1969).  Half the album was recorded live with his road band [“Live”], the other half was recorded in the studio [“Well”].  For the studio cuts, Szymczyk brought in studio musicians like Hugh McCracken, Paul Harris and Al Kooper.  The horns are still there, but they aren’t as prominent as they were on the preceding three studio albums.  Lucille and BB’s voice are brought to the fore, and the white studio guys could actually play the blues.  The blues feel is there.  There was a harder edge to the music.  The highlight for me on Live & Well is the closer Why I Sing The Blues, which clocks in at 8:37.  Short songs from BB King are ok, but I like to hear him stretch out and play.

Completely Well (1969) was an all-studio record.  With the exception of Al Kooper, the same studio musicians that played on the “Well” side of Live & Well are also present on Completely Well.  Producer Szymczyk strikes the same balance between horns, Lucille and BB’s voice on the first side of Completely Well as he did on Live & Well.  The other side of the LP is another story.  On this side, BB gets to cut loose on Lucille like I’ve never heard him before.  BB and company revisit a couple of songs BB recorded in the 1950s – Confessin’ the Blues and Cryin’ Won’t Help You Now.  These newer versions are more loose, and they sound more raw and angryCryin’ Won’t Help You Now turns into a studio jam and clocks in at over twice the length of the original (6:27).  BB and the other musicians weren’t ready to quit, so the jam continued on You’re Mean for an additional ten minutes.  At the end of the jam you can hear BB say “damn, whatcha y’all tryin’ to do, kill me?”  This was a blues-meets-rock aesthetic to which BB King was more than able to tackle.  The last song is The Thrill Is Gone.  This is the song that will be forever connected with BB King, even though he didn’t write it.  The song was written by blues musician Roy Hawkins in 1951, and it was a hit for him that same year.  Bill Szymczyk got BB to record it.  When BB first heard the result, he wasn’t too sure if he liked it.  Then Szymczyk recorded that magnificent string arrangement and put it on the record.  BB liked it after that – a classic was born.  The string arrangement for The Thrill Is Gone was a first for BB King.  The song is BB King’s biggest hit, and also served as a blueprint for the follow-up album to Completely Well.

Indianola Mississippi Seeds (1970) was that follow-up.  It’s the one with the watermelon that’s made to look like a guitar.  The music contained therein sounds like The Thrill Is Gone.  For this album, producer Szymczyk dispensed with the horns all together and added string arrangements to most of the songs.  The results are very good.  The strings are present without getting in the way of the musicians.  Live & Well and Completely Well were recorded in New York.  Indianola Mississippi Seeds was recorded in Los Angeles, and with a change of scenery came a change of studio musicians.  Szymczyk used a different crew of studio musicians, including Joe Walsh on rhythm guitar, Leon Russell and Carole King (yes, that Carole King, the great songwriter who produced Tapestry the following year.).  With Carole King on electric piano (and the ever-present strings), the true follow-up to The Thrill Is Gone single is a song called Chains & Things.  Both songs are minor-chord blues and sound similar in their arrangements, but they’re different enough from one another to dismiss any notion that Chains & Things is simply a Thrill Is Gone knock-off.  Chains & Things stands on its own merits.  Leon Russell contributed his own Hummingbird to the proceedings, and did his own string and “angelic choir” arrangements for the songs.  Merry Clayton and Clydie King were part of the angelic chorus that closes out the song and the album.

As good as Live at the Regal is [and it’s very, very good], I actually prefer Live at Cook County Jail.  The music contained therein is as good as its Regal predecessor.  The blues is what Keith Richards call “adult music.”  Given this description, the screaming girls that reminds one of Beatlemania somewhat detract from the Regal show.  Both BB and Lucille are in fine voice.  There is one drawback to Cook County Jail – BB talks too much.  Maybe the captive audience didn’t want to interact with BB, hence the excess chatter from BB.  With all the time spent talking to the inmates, two or three more songs could have been squeezed out of this show.  The live version of The Thrill Is Gone makes up for it.  This isn’t Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, but then again the music doesn’t lend itself to that kind of rowdiness.

Confessin’ the Blues, Blues on Top of Blues and Lucille are nice to have.  They’re nice, and they’re polite.  But for my money Live & Well, Completely Well, Indianola Mississippi Seeds, Live in Cook County Jail and Live at the Regal are essential BB King listening.

RIP BB King.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Four Sides of The Mule

What started out as a “side project” for Warren Haynes and Allen Woody during their down time from the Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule has been around for twenty years now [they released their first album Gov’t Mule in 1995].  This year they are commemorating this milestone in a unique way by opening their vaults and releasing some live shows from the years gone by.  Every year The Mule has two special days on their concert calendar – Halloween and New Year’s Eve.  In the spirit of Halloween, where kids put on costumes and pretend to be someone else, The Mule does the same thing.  Instead of being The Mule, they pretend they’re another band.  They began this tradition in 2007, when they decided they would play Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album in its entirety.  To up the cool quotient of this show, John Paul Jones joined them for that night.  Robby Krieger of The Doors did the same thing in 2013, playing two Doors-heavy shows in California.  Since The Mule started making every show available on their Mule Tracks website, here’s what their Halloween shows have looked like:

2007 – Led Zeppelin – Holy Haunted House [Houses of the Holy in its entirety]
2008 – Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Mule
2009 – The Rolling Stones – Stoned Side of the Mule [vinyl only]
2010 – The Who [Who’s Next in its entirety]
2012 – Jimi Hendrix
2013 – The Doors [two shows with Robby Krieger]
2014 – Neil Young

To begin their twentieth anniversary celebration, they released part of the 2009 Halloween show, the vinyl-only Stoned Side of the Mule.  I haven’t heard it, but I read about it.  The sight of drummer Matt Abts prancing on-stage like Mick Jagger while singing Shattered was oft-cited to be a highlight.  That’s about all I can say about it until I get the show online [I don’t buy vinyl anymore].  National Record Store Day wasn’t too long ago, and The Mule released the rest of their Stones songs on another piece of vinyl, the cleverly-titled Stoned Side of the Mule Vol. 2.  Perhaps someday the show will be mine…

The rest of the shows in this blog ARE mine, and I’m damn glad to have them.  In 2008, Jorgen Carlsson became the permanent bass player for The Mule, and Warren really threw him in the deep end [no pun intended] of the pool.  Their second gig with Jorgen was on Halloween night, so in addition to learning all The Mule’s songs [they never play the same setlist two nights in a row], Jorgen had to learn a bunch of Pink Floyd tunes as well.  Judging from what I heard, Floyd songs are not much of a problem for Jorgen Carlsson.  The Pink Floyd show [recorded in Boston], dubbed  Dark Side of the Mule, appeared right after Thanksgiving last year.  I happened to be in Hawaii at the time, and I picked up the single-disc version that documents just the Floyd set, while a multi-disc CD/DVD edition not only has the audio of the entire show, but it was also filmed.

I had some minor reservations about how this would sound.  Pink Floyd shows were very tightly-scripted affairs [I saw two of them in 1994].  How would a band such as Gov’t Mule, one that thrives on spontaneity and improvisation [I saw them in Pensacola last October], fare in playing tightly-constructed music?  Well, I must admit that when I heard them play Money, they just about drove over the cliff during the sax solo-to-guitar solo transition, but the sufficiently recovered to avoid complete disaster.  The Mule played the Floyd tunes fairly straight and stuck with the original arrangements.  The big surprise for me was Fearless.  On Meddle, it’s a quiet, pastoral piece.  In Warren Haynes’ hands it became dark, electric 12-string menace.  I think I like it better than the original [Heresy! Burn the heretic!].  On Comfortably Numb I expected Warren to go balls-out with face-melting solos like I know he’s capable – I saw David Gilmour do it twice, but Warren opted not to go there - very curious, but the crowd seemed to like it anyway.  What Warren held back in Comfortably Numb he more than made up for it in the last half of Shine On You Crazy Diamond.  The Mule finished with an electric version of Wish You Were Here, with Danny Louis playing what sounds like a lap steel.  Except for Fearless, Warren eschewed his usual Gibson arsenal and played with Stratocasters and Telecasters to give the Mule a finer stiletto-edged sound like David Gilmour.

Warren Haynes wrote in the liner notes that there were several reasons why they decided to release their Pink Floyd Halloween set.  The show took place at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, one of their favorite places to play.  He noted this was Jorgen Carlsson’s second gig with The Mule, so “why not?”  He also noted that Rick Wright’s death only a month prior to the show made it appropriate that they should release some kind of tribute to him.  And to that end, this set is dedicated to him.

The Pink Floyd Set:  One of These Days / Fearless / Pigs on the Wing Part 2 / Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts I-V / Have a Cigar [Matt Abts sings!] / Breathe in the Air / Time / Money / Comfortably Numb / Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts VI-VIII (no Part IX ‘Funeral March’) / Wish You Were Here

“The band is just fantastic, and I think that’s really cool, by the way – which one’s the Mule?”

Sometimes The Mule treats New Year’s Eve the same way they treat Halloween – an excuse to pay tribute to the music of others.  2014 saw The Mule play 18 AC/DC songs with singer Myles Kennedy.  In 2012 they did a tribute to The Three Kings [Albert, BB and Freddie], while in 2008 there was a Seattle music theme [Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Temple of the Dog].  That would make an interesting release.  In 1999, they played a six-song set with Little Milton Campbell as well as lots of covers from the likes of The Beatles, Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Humble Pie, and more [all documented in the three-CD Mulennium].   My point is that on New Year’s Eve, one can expect a show of nothing but The Mule, or anything BUT The Mule, or something in between.  In 2006, the audience at the Beacon Theatre got something in between.

Dub Side of the Mule sounds vastly superior to the dub/reggae album they released in 2007, Mighty High.  I never thought I would say this about any Gov’t Mule album, but I hate Mighty High.  This document with Toots Hibbert should have been released in its place. It sounds great, and it is obvious that a great time was had by all.  In addition to some of Toots Hibbert’s songs, you’ll find a couple of tunes by Otis Redding.  The real curve ball here is a reggae version of a Radiohead song [Let Down].  Al Green’s I’m a Ram [one of the very few things I like about Mighty High] kicked off this set.  My favorite song from this set is Hard Road.  It alternates between being laid back and being intense.  The blues standard Turn On Your Love Light also gets the reggae treatment.  To me it sounds more like ska, but I quibble.  I like it.  It kicked off the New Year.  Warren’s Soulshine got a reggae makeover [Reggae Soulshine].  It’s ok, but I didn’t need yet another version of this overplayed song.

The reggae set:  I’m a Ram / 54-56 Was My Number / Hard To Handle / True Love Is Hard To Find / Pressure Drop / Let Down / I’ve Got Dreams To Remember / Reggae Got Soul / Hard Road / Turn On Your Lovelight / Reggae Soulshine

Sco-Mule had been sitting in the can for the longest time of these archive releases.  Warren Haynes wrote a very detailed story about how he met with guitarist John Scofield about 25 years ago and how he came to invite Scofield to play two shows with them in Georgia in September 1999.  The Mule was a rock power trio then [Allen Woody was still alive and well].  They had recorded some jazz-influenced instrumentals for their first two albums [Trane, Birth of the Mule, Thelonius Beck], and at this point they got in the habit of changing their setlists from night to night as well as expanding their repertoire.  They were looking for new musical areas to explore.  Why not do something all-instrumental?  So they got together with John Scofield and worked out some tunes – some of Scofield’s, some of theirs, and others like Mongo Santamaria’s Afro Blue.  After the shows Warren listened back to what they played and mixed the shows for eventual release.  They had already begun recording their third album Life Before Insanity, but these shows might have been the release following LBI.  That was not to be because Allen Woody died unexpectantly in 2000.  After a period of time where the band didn’t know whether to continue without Woody, they decided to record the two volumes of The Deep End as well as the live The Deepest End as a tribute to him.  Once that project was behind them, the focus was to find a permanent bass player, move ahead and create new music.  The time never felt right to release Sco-Mule…until now.

Sco-Mule track list:

Hottentot / Tom Thumb / Doing It to Death / Birth of the Mule / Sco-Mule / Kind of Bird / Pass the Peas / Devil Likes It Slow / Hottentot [alternate version] / Kind of Bird [alternate version] / Afro Blue

Gov’t Mule and John Scofield just recently completed a month of shows together, all of which were recorded.  Warren hints that there might be a Sco-Mule 2 in the future.  One can only hope!