LP Review: Jimi Hendrix, ‘Both Sides of the Sky,’ The Vaults Runneth Over…

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The Hendrix vaults, like my cup, runneth over… I can’t believe this long after Jimi Hendrix’s tragic, early demise that there are still recordings of this high quality that haven’t already been released yet. Of course, my friend Matthew will tell you there’s probably a second guitarist on the grassy knoll – there isn’t one Matt… These are, for the most part, fully realized, in-studio tracks that I’ve never heard before. Full disclosure, unlike Dylan, I’ve never been a Hendrix completist. I own a lot of his music, but no bootlegs whatsoever. Kudos to Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s engineer back in the day, for pulling this together and making it sound so exceptional. I’m sure there are pasty guys in New York with goatees and grizzled visages who have book cases full of reel-to-reel tapes that they only handle when wearing white gloves, who have heard these songs bootlegged before… but for me most of the tracks on the newly released Both Sides of the Sky are new revelations. This album completes what I consider a loose trilogy of albums full of unreleased Hendrix tracks: Valleys of Neptune and People, Hell and Angels being the other two albums… All of which are essential for any Hendrix fan or fans of electric guitar in general.

After spending the weekend with this album and the other two I mention, I have to say, with all apologies to Eddie Van Halen (who I recently wrote about) and Jimmy Page (whose playing I adore), Jimi Hendrix is simply the greatest guitarist who ever lived. It’s not even close. I’m sure there are people out there who will want to fight me on this… I can remember when I was in junior high, sitting at the back of the school bus heading home one day. I alway sat in the back of the bus with the stoners. They were high but they were generally smarter people than the jocks up front. These two guys sitting in the rows in front of me got into an actual fist fight because they were arguing about what musical direction Hendrix would have taken if he’d lived. One of them made the mistake of saying Hendrix would have gone into jazz. The next thing I knew, punches are being thrown. I gotta say, those stoners were dedicated music fans.

Since Hendrix built and owned Electric Lady Studios, I like to think he’d have made a fortune from other artists recording there… I’d like to think, had he lived, Hendrix would be living in a condo above the studio, the reclusive ex-guitar God, who nobody sees or hears from unless he comes down on the street to score some weed. Maybe every once in a while he’d grant an interview where he’d say a few pro-Peace things, a few anti-Trump barbs and maybe drop the words “groovy” and “dig it” into his conversation. He’d refer to everyone as “Dude.” Eventually he’d have made the inevitable Rick Rubin produced comeback album – in Hendrix’s case it would have probably been an all acoustic, Blind Lemon Jefferson covers album. It’d probably win a Grammy. After a rambling speech accepting his Grammy, he’d return to his reclusive ways, where he’d only be seen occasionally wandering through the studio in a kaftan, headed out on the street to buy more weed. But then again, my imagination may be getting away from me on this…

The recordings that make up Both Sides of the Sky, from what I can ascertain, come from roughly 1968 to 1970. Since Hendrix owned a studio he spent almost all of his time when he wasn’t touring, recording what was to be the follow-up to Electric Ladyland. I think besides Electric Lady, he also spent a lot of time at New York’s Record Plant where some of these tracks were recorded. The line up of musicians on these tracks changes by track. Some of these songs feature the Experience, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. Others feature the guys who were in the Band of Gypsies, Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass.

There are different versions of songs here that have appeared elsewhere. Each of the the three albums I mentioned above has a version of the blues tune, “Hear My Train a Comin’.” That may make you shy away from a compilation like this, but I can literally listen to each version and find something different in each one. Hendrix is like a painter, like say, Cezanne, who would paint the same water lilies repeatedly, but using different colors, different perspective, different arrangement of the subject. Like that, Hendrix approaches the song and the solos differently on each track. Hendrix was, at heart a blues guy. Like Dylan with folk music, Hendrix, no matter how far he strayed into psychedelia, would return to the blues. I get the feeling that “Hear My Train a Comin'” was his in-studio warm up jam. He gets the band together, the microphones get set up and to heat up the room, the band naturally goes to it’s comfort zone and they play the blues. The solo on this version is ferocious.

There are other titles you’ll recognize, but these are different versions of the songs. I’ve heard “Lover Man” on live albums, but this is the first studio version I’ve heard. I’d also heard “Power of Soul” on the live album, Band of Gypsies, but this is the first studio version for me. There’s what sounds like an earlier version of “Stepping Stone,” which appeared on the album First Rays of the New Rising Sun. All of these, if you’ve heard the other versions, gives you a glimpse into Hendrix’s creative process. They show how he’d often recut and rerecord his guitar parts endlessly until he got something that was revelatory to him. It’s great stuff.

He has a number of collaborations here. Stephen Stills shows up on two tracks. There’s what must have been an earlier version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” on this record, before CSNY did it, where Stills plays organ and Hendrix plays bass. While I like that, Stills does a song “$20 Fine” where he sings and plays organ and Hendrix plays guitar that is fantastic. I can’t believe Stills never returned to that song. I knew these guys were friends, almost every other solo Stills plays now he adds in the liner notes, “Guitar solo inspired by James Marshall Hendrix.” I don’t know why he can’t just say Jimi. Sometimes, though talented, I get the feeling Stills is a bit of an asshole. The other collaborations, and they’re both “knock you out” awesome, are Hendrix with Johnny Winter doing “Things That I Used to Do” a track I first heard in the capable hands of Stevie Ray Vaughn. It’s as bluesy as hell. It’s fun to hear Hendrix and Winter, master blues guys, trading riffs. The second collaboration is Hendrix with his old friend, saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood and they do this fabulous tune “Georgia Blues.” I can’t believe this track wasn’t released. Lonnie sings on the song and it amazes me that Hendrix can step back, out of the spotlight and yet still stand out. All those years as a side-man on the “Chitlin Circuit” taught him well.

On unreleased compilations like this, there are usually instrumental tracks, stuff the band laid down but didn’t get back to in order to record lyrics/vocals. There are a few of those here. There’s an atmospheric thing called “Jungle” that just builds and builds. There’s an early version of the song “Angel,” here without the vocals called “Sweet Angel.” The best of the instrumental stuff here is “Cherokee Mist.” Hendrix is playing a sitar as well as guitar on that one. It starts off with a tribal sort of drum thing and then the band kicks in. It’s one of the best tracks here.

I already reviewed his take on Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” (Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’). It’s Muddy’s lyrics set to a rolling riff that explodes with guitar fury at the end. Another great headphones listen. The only track that jumped out to me as a “in studio creation” is “Send My Love to Linda.” It starts off as solo Hendrix voice/guitar and midway through they splice it with a band version of the song. The splice is pretty jarring. It couldn’t have been worse if they’d recorded Kramer pulling the scotch tape off the roll and slapping it on the magnetic tape. Still, the guitar work at the end is pretty amazing. I’d call that song a nice to have, not a have to have.

It’s been a wonderful weekend spending time with the master of all things guitar, Jimi Hendrix. I love this album, it may be my favorite of the trilogy of unreleased stuff. I advise anybody who loves Hendrix to pick this up. This certainly wouldn’t be where I’d start my Hendrix collection – pick up the albums he released in his life time – and then work your way through some of the live stuff. But when you end up here, at the unreleased stuff, his playing will change the way you think about guitar.

Cheers!

 

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Album Lookback: B. B. King’s ‘One Kind Favor,’ His Final Studio Album

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“There’s two white horses in a line…” – “See That My Grave Kept Clean,” B.B. King

As frequent readers know, I recently wrote about blues legend Muddy Waters’ late career  albums produced by Johnny Winter (Muddy Waters: 1977 – 1981, The Late Career, Johnny Winters’ Produced Records). I received an interesting question from Moulty58, a follower of B&V and a superb blogger in his own right (see his blog on 70s British rock, The Future is Past, at https://thefutureispast.co.uk). Moulty58, after lauding Muddy’s landmark “comeback” album Hard Again asked me if I had any other “nominations” for a great blues album that aren’t just a “collection of songs.” Many blues guys, like the rock acts of the 50s (Chuck Berry, Elvis), were focused on singles not albums. It wasn’t until the 60s that artists began to think of the album as more than just a loose collection of songs. It was probably the Beatles who really elevated the album to an actual statement. So it’s hard to find an album like Hard Again, that’s a complete work of art from start to finish from the classic blues guys.

Off the top of my head, when I read the question in the comments section, I answered with John Mayall’s album with Eric Clapton or either of the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band records. Since Moulty58 had mentioned the Stones recent LP, Blue And Lonesome (LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle), I also suggested one of their early albums, from when they were basically a blues cover band, 12×5. I could have thrown out Eric Clapton’s superb late career blues album, From The Cradle, but for some reason, it didn’t spring to mind. None of those acts were from the classic blues guys though and that bothered me. To be completely honest with you, I take all questions and comments very seriously and I have to a admit this question stuck with me. I didn’t feel like I’d given a definitive answer. I found my mind drifting back to the question when I was walking in the park or driving in my car. If I weren’t on a bourbon fast, I’d have likely pondered this question over a tumbler of dark and murky fluids during the wee small hours. When the answer finally presented itself to me, it was so obvious, I was stunned it hadn’t come to me quicker. The answer, in a name, was B.B. King.

I have always put B.B. King up there with Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf as the Mount Rushmore of Blues Gods. All the music I love, springs from the blues… While Muddy and the Wolf always conjure Chicago blues for me, B.B. always evoked the Delta and specifically Memphis to me. The man had a long and storied career and life, all 89 years of it. I have a number of B.B.’s old blues albums and consider Live At the Regal not only to be one of the best live albums, or one of the best blues albums, but simply one of the best albums of all time. B.B. didn’t really have anything to parallel Muddy’s late career triumvirate of albums working with Winter but I did buy a few of them.

B.B.’s late career was a bit of a grab bag. He had some live albums and the dreaded Christmas album. He did a great album of old standards, Reflections in 2003 but since they were standards, I hardly mark that as a blues album. He also did an album in tribute of the music of Louis Jordan in ’99 that was intriguing. B.B., like Frank Sinatra before him (who B.B. loved, Frank got him into the big rooms in Vegas, the Chairman was colorblind before everyone else), did a few duets albums. The first was all the way back in 1997 entitled Deuces Are Wild. He did a second one on his 80th birthday in 2005 entitled, creatively 80. Like Sinatra’s duets albums, B.B.’s attempted to cast a wide net commercially instead of creatively which only hurt the projects in my mind. There were R&B, blues, rock and roll and even country and hip hop stars who were paraded in to sing with B.B. I recommended Deuces to my friend Ron and he sent me a bill… he wanted his money back.

I understood Ron’s feelings. Mixing Heavy D with B.B. was one of those mistakes none of us will ever recover from, but if you edit the album, you can actually find some gems there and make it listenable. Van Morrison does an amazing job on his tune. It’s a true stand out track on Deuces. Naturally Bonnie Raitt’s duet is fabulous complete with her slide guitar. She always shows up when a bluesman calls. The guy who surprised me on the album was Joe Cocker, whose duet on “Dangerous Mood” conjures some real menace from B.B. on guitar. The act that made that first duets album worth the price of admission for me was the Stones doing “Paying The Cost To Be The Boss.” That one smokes, people, buy that song alone.

80 was much in the same vein. It had that one egregious mistake, in this case Gloria Estefan. Oh my god is that song horrible. But again, with some judicious cuts, the album does have some great moments. It’s fun to hear Glenn Frey, Elton John and Roger Daltrey tear into the blues. Sheryl Crow even acquits herself well, and that’s not something I’d have ever expected. The duets albums were fun, but it was more like going to a family reunion and seeing some folks you hadn’t seen for a while. The albums were kind of disjointed, loud, brassy affairs. B.B. sounded relaxed, almost too relaxed in some cases. They were an enjoyable listen, but nothing earth shattering.

Better was the entire album of duets he cut with Eric Clapton and Eric’s band, Ridin With the King in 2000. That’s an album I can recommend. Clapton and B.B. just have a natural rapport. Clapton was deferential to his elder and B.B. responded. They did old blues tunes and a couple of standards. The title track, written by John Hiatt, is just fun. Clapton had members of his band write a couple of tunes. It’s a real solid blues album from a man paying respect to one of his inspirations.

None of all of that – the duets albums, the album with Clapton, the Louis Jordan thing, the standards record – prepared me for what I what I would behold on what would turn out to be B.B.’s final studio album, One Kind Favor. And yes, Moulty58, the answer to your question, which should have been so obvious to me, is this album. I had heard that big-time producer, T. Bone Burnett had lured B.B. King into the studio to record an album. I had been intrigued. T. Bone had just come off the huge success of the Robert Plant, Alison Krauss project, Raising Sand. I loved that album, and the way it was produced. T. Bone, like Daniel Lanois has a murky, backroom sound to his productions that I love. He went on to do a marvelous album for Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues. 

This is B.B. doing classic blues for what ended up being the last time. You look at the cover art, and it almost looks like it’s B.B. standing on the shore of the river Styx, waiting for Charon, the Ferryman, to come and take him across. B.B. has Lucille with him, so it appears he’s going to play his fare across the river to the promised land. The title, “One Kind Favor” is taken from the old blues tune, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” which opens the album in a hushed shuffle. It’s not until midway through the song that B.B.’s guitar notes puncture the gloom. While this isn’t wrapped in mortality like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, it’s certainly in that neighborhood.

The backing band is sensational. On drums you have both famous session guy Jim Keltner and Jay Bellerose (who works with T Bone quite a bit). Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, is here on piano. Nathan East, who played with Clapton and I think Phil Collins, is here on bass. Neil Larsen is on the organ. There are horns on this album, like most B.B. albums, but they’re more muted in most cases. The focus is on B.B.’s voice and guitar and the rhythm section. On his late work B.B. had a propensity to sing big and sound almost joyful… if not joyful, at least one might describe his late singing as redemptive. He’s singing the blues like it’s 1945 on this album, there’s little joy to be found. He brings the blues in a classic way. Kudos to T. Bone for pulling this performance out of B.B. when he was well into his 80s.

The song selection is inspired. There are several songs by B.B.’s hero, Lonnie Johnson, “My Love is Down,” and “Tomorrow Night.” It’s interesting to me, as a side note, that Bob Dylan did “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on his debut album and “Sitting On Top of the World,” “World Gone Wrong” (both songs performed by B.B. here) on his late 90s folk albums. It’s absolute proof of how connected folk and blues or if you will, folk-blues are. It’s all connected, people. King’s guitar on “I Get Weary” is something ferocious. He rips into that song. “Get These Blues Out of Me” conjures up the opening riffs of “The Thrill Is Gone,” King’s best known song. Most of these songs are tunes that B.B. had done before but here he imbues the songs with a weathered, knowing wisdom. “Blues Before Sunrise” is magic in B.B. King’s hands here…

I am just so delighted that B.B. King, blues master, once again stripped away the commerciality, the duets and all the glitz and made a down and dirty, gritty blues album. It’s the perfect send off for the man, the myth, the legend. Pick this one up if you love the blues or if you love blues guitar. It’s essential listening for all fans.

Cheers!

 

 

Album Lookback: Van Halen – The Smirking Menace of Their Debut at 40

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I’ve been traveling a lot lately. It’s hard to keep up with what’s going on in the world, especially considering how much is actually going on. All of that aside, I saw last month that on February 10th, Van Halen’s self-titled, debut album turned 40 years old. I was thirteen when that album came out and while that seems like a lifetime ago, I didn’t think it had been forty years, or an actual lifetime. As Dylan sang, “Time is a jet plane, moving way too fast.” I saw several of the rock websites and magazines give mention or even full articles to the anniversary, but I couldn’t help but think back to my own experience with this landmark album.

As I’ve often mentioned in the pages of B&V, the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls was the first album I ever purchased with my own money. It was money my Sainted Grandmother had given me for Xmas. She didn’t want to be the one to buy me Some Girls because the back cover was an old-time add for woman’s bras. Grandma was concerned those images might corrupt my young mind… oh, little did she know, that cat was out of the bag. My actual first album ever, which was a gift that Christmas, was Steve Martin’s Wild And Crazy Guy. Comedy albums used to be, as we say, a big fucking deal. Everybody had a copy of that album and would perform the bits in school to make the girls laugh, but that’s another post.

What I don’t often talk about, are the albums I bought after Some Girls. I had been a bit of late bloomer when it came to music. If my brother hadn’t insisted that my mother turn the radio to the rock station in KC, KY/102, while I was in the car, I never would have heard “Shattered” and gotten on this whole rock n roll train. Well, I probably would have, but it would have taken a lot longer. After hearing the Stones that fall, I started tuning into KY/102 regularly. Previously I had only turned on the radio to listen to sports. My God, I was missing out. After hearing the Stones, the world of rock and roll was rapidly opening up to me. Well, as much as it could in the midwest.

While I bought Some Girls over Christmas break of ’79 (again, I was late to the party), buying more albums came slower. To purchase an album you had to have almost $10, a major investment in those times. The second album I ever purchased, was the classic debut album, Van Halen. It had been almost the constant soundtrack of my early rock and roll experience, how could it not be my second ever album? Hearing that band, at that time, you had to own Van Halen’s debut or you had absolutely no street “cred.” We were young, experimenting with beer and other things, and girls were taking up more and more of our mental capacity… Van Halen captured all of that energy in one album.

I can still remember the spring of ’79, eager to show off my new stereo, after riding our bikes around the neighborhood one weekend (pretending we were a motorcycle gang), where there may have been some herbal remedies invoked and drinking a stolen 40 ounce beer between four of us, we made our way back to my room. I unveiled my turntable/radio/cassette unit and two big speakers to my friends. I had just made a major investment on this new album and played Van Halen’s debut three or four times. I decided to show off my depth of music and put my only other album, Some Girls on the stereo. I can still remember my friend (who to protect the guilty, I’ll call) Paul saying, “Dude, put the fucking Van Halen back on.” That’s how huge that record was for us. We listened to it constantly.

1978 was a weird time. The energy and fury of punk was slowly evolving into “new wave” best represented by the music of say, the Cars. Disco was still a poisonous and potent force, especially with my mother, sadly. The legendary rock stars of old had gotten slow… The Stones had sort of captured and absorbed the punk thing on Some Girls. Punk seemed to wake Pete Townshend out of his torpor and he at least came up with a response on “Who Are You?” Springsteen took a huge stylistic left turn from Born to Run and turned up the anger and the guitars (or perhaps the angry guitars?) and put out Darkness On The Edge of Town. Less successful at dealing with punk were Led Zeppelin who just added synths (although that might have been because Jimmy Page was in a heroin cocoon) or Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham with his experiments on Tusk. 

Hard rock was somewhat lost. Kiss was really big at the time, even with some of my comrades. I never got that. I didn’t like Kiss… Aerosmith were at their peak, but they never had the commercial reach of some of the older bands. Judas Priest and the new British metal were doing great things, but you didn’t hear a lot of that out in KC, or at least I didn’t get into that until much later in high school. We were too young to even realize the gravity that rock and roll, hard rock or heavy metal was in such peril. Enter Van Halen.

Their debut wasn’t without controversy. Many critics panned it and the band, especially for their lyrics. They thanked Gene Simmons on the album cover (he’d recorded some demos for them) and the biggest, most nefarious rumor, to my friends and I, was that Van Halen was actually Kiss without their make up. I remember a group of my friends staring at the inside sleeve picture of Michael Anthony, Van Halen’s bass player and harmony vocalist, and thinking, “Hmm, that might be Gene Simmons with his hair dyed.” I laugh now at what a big deal that was to we, the rock purists, a group I had only newly joined.

But my God, the music on this album. It was like nothing we’d ever heard before. It’s always hard to understand the magnitude of something that is so vastly influential that it colors everything that comes after it. The riffs that Eddie Van Halen played had no precedence in the Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, blues-based riffs we’d all heard before. Aerosmith, while good, didn’t really break any new ground. They were heavier, perhaps. You could draw a line from Chicago Blues to the Stones/the Yardbirds to The Jeff Beck Group to Led Zeppelin to Aerosmith. You couldn’t draw a line from anything to Van Halen. It was like Eddie was a space alien who had landed with his guitar to teach the world to shred. Nobody played like him. It wasn’t until I saw video of him playing up the neck of the guitar that I realized how he was doing some of this stuff. In the early days of Van Halen, Eddie played with his back to the crowd so other guitarists couldn’t rip him off. The song “Eruption” was the most amazing thing we’d ever heard. It was more influenced by classical music than anything I’d heard in the blues rock dominated scene of the time. There would have been no Randy Rhodes without Eddie Van Halen.

Looking at the inner sleeve of the record, and the pictures that had been taken at The Whiskey after a gig, these guys looked like the coolest people on earth. David Lee Roth, the lead singer, was THE MAN! Clearly these guys had discovered what Jeff Beck said when he recruited Rod Stewart to be his front man. The dudes come to see the guitarist, the chicks come for the big, blonde, good looking guy on vocals. There was a menace to the music of Van Halen, but Roth gave it a smirking wink. On the track, “I’m the One,” a great rocker, there’s a barbershop quartet breakdown right in the middle. Out of nowhere. Only someone as cocksure as Roth could have pulled that off. “Bop Bop Shoobie Doo Wah…”? What? Roth and Eddie’s yin/yang thing was magic. Every front man who came after him in the 80s, and many of them sucked, were emulating Roth… Don’t blame him for the pale imitations. Roth was, and in some respects remains, the ultimate teenage boy, full of lusty innuendos and drug references.

The first track I ever heard on the radio was their definitive take on “You Really Got Me,” a Kinks cover. I had to be told by a friend that it was a Kink’s cover. In Van Halen’s hands, they made it their own. The song that drove me to my piggy bank and then to the mall was the epic “Runnin’ With the Devil,” a song that still scares my mother. Although once Valerie Bertinelli married Eddie, she said, “Well, he must be a nice boy after all…” Jesus, mom. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” was another epic, menacing rocker. I read somewhere that to record that track, Roth had been fasting from pot and booze and bad food. When he just couldn’t get the vocal right, he called for a cheeseburger, coke and a joint. After consuming all three, he stepped in and nailed the vocal in 1 take.

“Jamie’s Crying” was as close to this album came to a ballad. It takes the viewpoint of a young girl besieged by horny men after only one thing… “Atomic Punk” is a riff that still is so epic and so original that 40 years in, I’m still not over it. It makes me stand up every time I hear it. The most Roth song here is the only other cover, “Ice Cream Man.” Roth is at his comic best on this one. He starts off with “Dedicate one to the ladies…” In his day he was both cool and funny.

I listen to this album and even at the ripe age of forty it still sounds fresh and original. I wish these guys could have held it together after the wild success of 1984. At this point I’d settle for another reunion album, although this time, I’d like to hear Michael Anthony on bass and harmony vocals. I think that, like Pink Floyd, this is a band we’ll never hear from again. But I urge everyone who is a fan of rock’n’roll and hard rock to purchase this album. It’s essential to any collection.

Cheers!

 

 

Eric Clapton: Showtime’s Exceptional Documentary, ‘Life In 12 Bars’

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One of the few joys of this brittle and brutal winter is that the Winter Olympics are taking place. I was never a huge fan of the Olympics, but the Rock Chick watches these things religiously. Naturally, when we got married she pulled me into watching them with her. Every time I leave the B&V lab and go downstairs she’s got the Games on… I’m beginning to think she’s got money on the Curling event… I told her, when in doubt always bet on Norway. With a nickname like ‘The Fighting Vikings’ you can’t possibly go wrong.

Unfortunately my wife’s Winter Olympics Obsession has prevented me from screening the Showtime Documentary on Eric Clapton, ‘Life In 12 Bars.’ Finally, after meeting my old friend Tomas out for a few drinks last night, with my wife asleep, I was able to pull up the rockumentary. I’ve always been a huge fan of Clapton’s music. However, I have to admit, his latter career has puzzled me a bit. I haven’t found anything I can really get into since Me And Mr. Johnson his tribute to Robert Johnson. And if I’m being honest, that one disappointed me when compared to his brilliant blues album, From The Cradle. I posited a theory about the latter stages of Clapton’s career before on B&V, Analysis: Clapton’s Late Career – Is He Making Amends?. I think my frustration with Clapton’s late career stems from reading his autobiography. He’s one of the few people who I’ve read an autobiography by and thought less of the person afterward. However, seeing this documentary has completely turned me around. I think this arresting look at Clapton does a lot to help give the man’s life more context than his writing did. Oh, Eric, I just can’t stay mad at you.

In the first hour of the documentary alone, he goes from illegitimate child (like Jack Nicholson, he thought his grandma was his mother and that his mom was his sister) to the Yardbirds, to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to Cream to hanging with Hendrix and recording with the Beatles on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And again that’s just the first hour of this two hour-fifteen minute film. That’s a pretty wild ride. I’ve always felt that rock and roll sprang from the fertile roots of the blues and blossomed out in all sorts of different ways. Eric Clapton just may be the living embodiment of that theory.

He began his career as a blues purist and left the Yardbirds after he felt they’d turned “too commercial” or “too pop-sounding.” After joining, leaving and rejoining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers he recorded one of the most influential blues albums of all time, Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton only to leave and form Cream. Cream is where Clapton really broke into America. When he arrived in America, there’s a scene where they ask him what he’s listening to and he immediately shines a light on Jimi Hendrix and the Experience who hadn’t broken over here yet. Then he quickly added a list of black American bluesmen. Clapton and some of his other compatriots in the British Invasion brought black blues music back to America. It’s really cool to see Muddy Waters and B.B. King interviewed and hear them talk about how much those “English kids” did to help them. Thank God they did.

The documentary then follows Clapton through the brief career and collapse of Blind Faith, his band with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. Clapton retreated to his home in the English country-side where he was joined by keyboardist Bobby Whitlock. In the span of one year, 1970, these guys recorded Clapton’s solo debut (Eric Clapton), George Harrison’s landmark debut solo album All Things Must Pass and Derek and the Domino’s Layla…And Other Assorted Love Songs. That’s one hell of a year. I don’t think I’ve ever been that productive, that’s for sure. The build-up to the writing and recording of Clapton’s signature tune, “Layla” was a bit overwrought. I get it, it’s a great song, but there’s a lot more to Clapton than just that song. And I think everybody knows about his affair with Pattie Boyd, Harrison’s then wife. During those recording sessions in that momentous year of 1970 is when the heroin snuck in. Man, is that an insidious drug.

And this is where the documentary turns dark. They cover Clapton’s dissolution into heroin addiction and his retirement to seclusion. He was gone, out of sight for four years. When he finally kicked smack he emerged as an alcoholic. And when I say alcoholic, I mean the biggest asshole drunk I’ve ever seen. I described this documentary as unflinching mostly for the way it handles this portion of Clapton’s career. Clapton stood up on stage and made some horrid racist statements because he was drunk off his ass. Here’s a man who had carried the banner for black musicians in the 60s, spouting racist bullshit from the stage in the 70s. It just goes to show you how lost he really was.

It’s an important part of the story, his addiction and alcoholism, but they really blow past his solo music. He recorded some really great music in the 70s and 80s, 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand just to name a few but the documentary just focuses on the alcoholism and the personal problems he faced. I guess I never realized how bad things got. Again, it’s important in understanding Clapton the artist to go through all this harrowing stuff but I felt the music of his solo career got short shrift. This is no happy tale. The man, like Gregg Allman, lived the blues. Naturally the last part of the documentary focuses on the tragic loss of his son, Conor. It finally ends on a lighter note when it highlights Clapton’s rehab clinic in Antigua. B.B. King gives a nice toast to Eric at the Crossroads Music Festival that is worth the price of admission.

I think everyone who is interested in music, the blues and Clapton will find this vital viewing. There are a lot of interviews, photos and film footage that I’ve never seen. I might also say, after watching the documentary, I was reminded of spending a whole afternoon back in my single days, just listening to Clapton’s monumental box set, Crossroads, which I think is the perfect sound track to listen to after you’ve seen the movie. Or, if you’re OCD like me, you’ll end up listening to the Yardbirds, Mayall, and now I’m in the middle of Cream headed to Blind Faith and on my way to Derek and the Dominos… I’ve got a lot of music to listen to between lady’s downhill races…

P.S. – At the beginning of the documentary Clapton appears to be on Skype. He gives a heartfelt speech about the passing of the legend B.B. King. In the midst of that he recommends a record by B.B., Live At The Regal. Clapton, in this case, is spot on – it’s one of the greatest live albums and one of the greatest blues albums of all time. It’s wonderful to listen to B.B. and his audience and the amazing rapport they had. It’s essential B&V listening.

Enjoy!

 

 

Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’

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As I said on one my earliest posts, when reviewing Jimi Hendrix’s superb live album, Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival (Review: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival (Live)), just when I thought I was done buying Jimi Hendrix albums, he pulls me back in. When Hendrix passed, he had a ton of unreleased studio material. After he released Electric Ladyland, between concerts and endless touring he would hole up at his Electric Lady studios and record. He was deep into writing and recording the follow up to Electric Ladyland, (which was to be a double album as well) when he sadly passed away.

When Hendrix passed, like so many other rockers, like say Prince, he didn’t have his estate set up. When you’re a rock star, who can be bothered with legal documents like a last will and testament. When you’re young, you feel like you’re going to live forever…add rock stardom to that, and who can blame Jimi. After his father died, there were the usual legal battles over his legacy and his estate. Eventually, his sister Janie Hendrix found herself in control of Jimi’s estate. She formed Experience Hendrix and started collaborating with Hendrix’s engineer Eddie Kramer to remaster and release some of Jimi’s material in the vaults.

Personally, although I consider myself a completist, I never delved into the Hendrix’s posthumous releases. I’d heard bad things about Cry Of Love and all the egregious overdubbing of other guitarists on that album. Blasphemy of the highest order. To this day my friend in Denver, Matthew is always suspicious it’s someone else playing on newly discovered Hendrix material… Matthew, there is no second guitarist on the grassy knoll… My reluctance to delve into Hendrix’s posthumous releases ended when Janie Hendrix and Eddie Kramer put out First Rays of the New Rising Sun in 1997. I hate to use this word, but I consider it the definitive version of what might have been Jimi’s follow-up to Electric Ladyland. Kramer used the most completed, polished versions of the songs slated for the album and the notes that Hendrix himself had left behind to put together the album. Would Hendrix have changed his mind about the running order, what was included, or rerecorded guitar parts (as he was famously known to do, sometimes endlessly changing his solos up to the time of an album’s release)? Sadly, we’ll never know.

Experience Hendrix followed up First Rays with an album of “previously unreleased” songs, Valleys of Neptune in 2010, which I snatched up immediately. The title track was one of the most coveted unreleased tracks in Hendrix’s catalog and it does not disappoint. It remains one of my favorite Hendrix tracks. It’s a trippy, mid tempo, Hendrix rock tune. The songs on this album were largely recorded in 1969 with the original Experience, drummer Mitch Mitchell, and bassist Noel Redding. Yes, the album had some loose, in studio, instrumentals which sound like jam sessions, rather than fully realized tunes, but there is a lot to like on this album. There are alternative versions of songs he released prior as well. I think it’s all still essential listening, especially in light of the fantastic sound of the record. Kramer is to be commended. It’s a must-have for fans of Hendrix.

Experience Hendrix then followed Valleys with an album of “12 previously unreleased” songs, People, Hell and Angels in 2013. Somehow that one got by me. I just picked it up last month and it’s very much in the same vein of Valleys. Although the songs on this album were recorded by the Band of Gypsies (Billy Cox on bass, Buddy Miles on drums) over the course of 1968 and 1969. Stephen Stills even shows up to play bass on the stand-out track, “Somewhere.” There are different versions of “Earth Blues” and “Izabella.” I have to admit, I really love Hendrix’s solo’ing on this album. He was truly in the zone when he was in the studio. And once again, the over-all sound of this record is fantastic. If you listen to it on headphones, there is a real danger your head might explode. This stuff might have already been out there in the vast world of bootlegs, but I have never come across any Hendrix boots (and I have a long bootleg history) and I’m pretty certain anything bootlegged wouldn’t sound this tremendous.

At that point, I assumed the vaults were empty. I mean, Experience Hendrix had released a box-set of material, West Coast Seattle Boy that had to clear out the vaults, right? If Hendrix coughed near a microphone, it was recorded and released on that box… They even included Jimi sitting in a hotel room singing a cover by the Band (“Tears of Rage”), with an acoustic guitar and a tape recorder. I’m not sure how they did it, but it sounds a lot better than I thought it would. So at this point, could there really be any more in the vaults? The answer, it appears, is yes.

My friend, Drummer Blake, texted me a few weeks ago and said, “New Hendrix is coming out in March, that could be interesting.” Indeed, Drummer Blake, indeed. I have to admit, the upcoming release, entitled Both Sides of the Sky is one of B&V’s most anticipated new records for 2018. I’ve always considered Jimi Hendrix to be an artist in the same vein as Pablo Picasso. These were inventive artists who saw the world differently. Their art literally changed the form: Picasso for painting, Hendrix for guitar. But Hendrix, at his very roots, at his very core, was a bluesman. In the same way, over the course of his long career, Bob Dylan always seems to return to folk music, (on late period albums like World Gone Wrong or Good As I Been To You), Hendrix, no matter how experimental or psychedelic his music got, always returned to the blues. I think I have around a dozen versions of “Red House” and “Hear My Train A Comin’.”

So it was no surprise to me that the first track Hendrix released from Both Sides of the Sky is a blues tune, Muddy Waters’ classic “Mannish Boy.” Muddy Waters, along with B.B. King and Howlin Wolf are for me, the Titans of the Blues. Muddy’s version of “Mannish Boy” recorded with and produced by Johnny Winters on Hard Again, is not only the definitive version, it’s probably the greatest blues tune ever done. Although, I’m also very fond of Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign,” but I digress. With the Rock Chick gone for the weekend, I’ve been obsessively listening to this new Hendrix version.

First and foremost, I love that Jimi went back to the blues and I especially love that he chose to record this Muddy Waters’ tune. That said, there is very little that Hendrix’s version of “Mannish Boy” has in common with Muddy’s version. Yes, its the same song, but as I said about Hendrix seeing the world differently, this version is very much done in a Hendrix-y fashion. There is no call and response vocals, like the way Muddy and Jimmy Rivers do it. Hendrix plays it faster, with an almost funky, psychedelic effect to the guitar. The vocal is quite impassioned. He sings the notes of his early solos through the song. You can tell how “at home” Hendrix felt in the blues. There are a few, very brief bass solos as well. I don’t have liner notes so I’m not sure whose on bass here… There is also a brief, melt your face off, blast of guitar towards the end that I can’t stop focusing on. Hearing that last blast of guitar reminded me what an influence Hendrix was on John Frusciante, former Red Hot Chili Pepper’s guitarist. Hendrix was just simply put, a Guitar God and his playing can take the mundane to the sublime. This is a fun track and I think it bodes very well for the album. I highly recommend any Hendrix, guitar or blues fan, checks this track out.

Cheers!

RIP Malcolm Young, Rhythm Guitarist Extraordinaire of AC/DC

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Oh man, not another one. I awoke this morning to the sad news that Malcolm Young, the extraordinarily talented rhythm guitarist for AC/DC, one of the world’s (and one of my) favorite hard rock bands, had passed away. He had been suffering from dementia and had to retire from the band prior to the tumultuous recording of their last record, Rock Or Bust. Dementia claimed my maternal grandmother and it’s a tough way to go. By every account that I’ve read, statements from other musicians, Malcolm was described as being a “sweet” guy. Being that talented and that nice are some pretty great things to be remembered for. He was preceded in death by his older brother George Young, who was in the Easy Beats, an early Aussie rock band and who was later a producer for AC/DC. Tough couple of months for the Youngs.

It had to be somewhat difficult for Malcolm. He’s always been a bit overshadowed by his brother Angus on lead guitar who, in his school uniform, was the visual symbol of the band. He was also probably overshadowed by the lead singers – who wouldn’t be overshadowed by larger than life Bon Scott and later Brian Johnson. The front man always gets the attention and the chicks. Yet, Malcolm cowrote every song they did with Angus and Bon Scott and later with just Angus. I would say Malcolm was more important than anybody on the microphone to AC/DC. His riffs were the foundation of every tune they put out. Even though he retired prior to the recording of their last album, Rock or Bust, Angus said most of the song ideas and basic riffs were written by and demo’d by Malcolm. He was as important to rhythm guitar as Keith Richards. That bedrock rhythm guitar allowed his brother Angus to soar on so many great solos.

One of the first albums I remember buying was AC/DC’s Back In Black. I was working as a bus boy at a steak joint named York Steak House in Oak Park Mall out in the suburbs of Kansas City. The crew I worked with there was one of the funnest, most degenerate group of people I’ve ever met. And believe me, I know a lot of degenerates, but these guys took the cake. One of the managers had a big keg party for the employees, most of whom were underage for drinking, but why split hairs over silly rules. We were out at some lake in western Johnson County. Somebody dropped the Back In Black cassette into the boom box and it was like an explosion in my head. My life had changed. Listening to that album, and marveling at the monster guitar riffs, I thought it was some band’s greatest hits album. I remember we were so fiercely air-guitaring I fell and hit my head on a park bench… maybe that’s why I remember that party so clearly… it was literally jarring. Talk about your head banging, I lived it, baby.

It was shortly after almost wearing out Back In Black, that I started researching AC/DC. It was then that I realized that they had just replaced their lead singer Bon Scott with Brian Johnson. I thought it was Brian singing on Highway To Hell, their vocals were so similar. Now, I can hear the difference clearly. One of the reasons their sound stayed so consistent was Malcolm and Angus’ monster riffage. I remember going to the mall and for some inexplicable reason I bought Highway To Hell on cassette instead of vinyl. The mistakes of youth… I think I wanted to play it in the car. That album underscored to me, it doesn’t matter whose up front singing, it’s the guitars that power that band.

I saw AC/DC on the Ballbreaker tour with my buddy, The Accountant, and they were just so spectacular. A lot of that was due to Malcolm’s perfectionist tendencies. He was so committed to the fans. He even quit AC/DC in the 80s to go to rehab to quit drinking. He’d realized his playing was suffering and he loved guitar more than booze. That’s commitment.

I had drifted away from AC/DC, even after seeing that great Ballbreaker show. It wasn’t until I met the Rock Chick and she turned me onto some of their great later albums, The Razor’s Edge, Stiff Upper Lip, that I reconnected with this great band. The Stiff Upper Lip tour was the first concert I ever took the Rock Chick to, chronicled on this very blog, AC/DC’s Stiff Upper Lip Concert – I Discover I’m Dating The Rock Chick. I’m very glad I saw that show, and glad that Rock Chick reintroduced me to this wonderful band. AC/DC remains and will remain in high rotation here at the B&V home.

Today the rock and roll world has lost another foundational player. We down here at the B&V lab will be flying the rock flag at half mast. Me, I’m going to pour a tumbler full of something strong, brown and murky and turn on the Rock Chick’s fabulous AC/DC play list. RIP Malcolm!

 

LP Review: Queens of the Stone Age, ‘Villains,’ Pure Hard Rock Groove

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I should go on vacation more often… I leave town to visit the in-laws and a slew of new music gets released. I’m not sure if I’m willing to suffer through another one of those trips even if it does mean a lot of new music… I can only take so many for the team, folks. I know I’ve been posting quite a bit lately but with all this great new music, I’m lucky just to keep up. As my buddy Matthew said to me when I was in Denver, “I can tell this is your passion…” Indeed.

One album I was really looking forward to hearing was ‘Villains’ the new QotSA LP. I absolutely loved the first single, “The Way You Used To Do” reviewed previously on B&V (Queens Of The Stone Age Release New Single, “The Way You Used To Do,” And Save Rock n Roll). My friend Drummer Blake says Queens are too musician-y for mass consumption but I tend to disagree. Yes, these guys are such master craftsman it would take an actual musician to understand what they’re doing sometimes but their last few records have been catchy as hell.

I had an odd introduction to QotSA… I was driving in my car and for once I was tuned into the local alternative rock station, “The Buzz.” When I was growing up, if a new album came out by a big band, the DJ would scrap the programmed stuff and drop the needle on the new vinyl. You could hear a brand new record the day it came out just by turning on the radio. In these days of pre-programmed, corporate owned radio stations, you’re not gonna hear that happen much any more. Hence, I’ve given up on terrestrial radio… Anyway, this DJ, Afentra announces they’ve got the then new Queens’ LP, ‘…Like Clockwork’ and much to my surprise, she played the whole album. I had to pull the car over. What I heard that day blew my mind. ‘…Like Clockwork’ plays to me like a Pink Floyd record, you need to hear the whole thing together as a suite. Well, almost, I can listen to “If I Had a Tail” or “I Sat By the Ocean” or even “My God Is the Sun” and enjoy it, but listening to the whole thing is the best way to experience it.

‘…Like Clockwork’ had a murky, ominous feel to it. Josh Homme, the leader and only permanent member of Queens had just survived a knee surgery that went bad, where his heart actually stopped beating. Then he suffered from a horrible auto-immune infection afterward. ‘Clockwork’ sounds like an “airing of the grievances” kind of album, especially “Fair-weather Friends.” I was blown away. Although I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was a big fan of Homme’s work on Iggy Pop’s ‘Post Pop Depression,’ that came out shortly afterwards. That was an inspired pairing, QotSA and Iggy… Homme brought out Pop’s best music in years. (Review: Iggy Pop, “Post Pop Depression”)

Naturally, hearing ‘Clockwork’ sent me back in their catalog. I landed on ‘Songs For the Deaf.’ Holy crap, that thing is a hard rock masterpiece. The album practically shrieks out of the speakers at you. Although the guitars are hard and loud, they’re kind of droning. It’s hypnotic in a way. “No One Knows,” “Go With the Flow” and “First It Giveth” are amongst my favorite tunes. Comparing ‘Songs For the Deaf’ to ‘…Like Clockwork’ is virtually impossible… It’s hard to believe those two records came from the same band… What can’t these guys do? With all that as a backdrop, I was looking forward to the new album, but I  had literally no expectations.

I read recently, probably in Rolling Stone that Josh Homme doesn’t want to hear anybody say that rock is dead. He’s willing to punch record company guys in the face if they so much as hint that they think it. Homme is a pretty big guy… best we not test him on this. However, seeing him in the Eagles of Death Metal documentary, “Mon Amis” I think Josh is a pretty good, stand-up guy…he’s certainly a good friend to have… but still, I don’t want him to punch me but I do worry about rock these days. I must admit, when I heard he’d hired Mick Ronson, who has produced Bruno Mars to helm this project, it raised an eyebrow for me. Is this going to be QotSA’s ‘Emotional Rescue’ or “Miss You,” a foray into dance music? I tried to imagine QotSA doing a hard edged “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”… the horror, the horror. I needn’t have worried. Rock will always be safe as long as Josh Homme is around.

The first two tracks on this album “Feet Don’t Fail Me” and “The Way You Used To Do” are big rocking tunes that groove. Yes, you can even dance to them if you’re so inclined. Myself, I gave up dancing years ago… paramedics always seem to try and force wood between my teeth when I do… While I love both those tunes, I really like the song “Fortress.” “If ever your fortress caves, you’re always safe in mine” sounds like the encouraging words of a father to a son. It’s a mid-tempo thing with a great guitar riff. The drumming on this record is sensational… I don’t know if it’s Homme or Jon Theodore who is listed as the QotSA drummer these days. Troy Van Leeuwen is listed as guitarist, Dean Fertita is on keyboards, and Michael Schuman is on bass. I’ve always thought of Queens as more of a musical collective than a band…

“Head Like a Haunted House” almost sounds like a harder rocking B-52’s song. There’s a great variance in the styles on this short set of nine tunes. Gone are the ominous, dark tones that graced ‘…Like Clockwork.’ QotSA are ready to party on this record. I don’t know how many times I’ve reviewed albums on this site and said, “well, this album is great, but you can’t really play it at a party…” This album, you can definitely play at a party… Well, I could, but most my friends are music nuts like I am. “Un-Reborn Again” is another stylistic turn and almost sounds like glam rock… the cadence of the lyrics are almost Bowie-esque. Well, I say that until he actually quotes the Georgia Satellites in the middle of the song. It’s that kind of “fuck all,” freewheeling album. This is fun music.

“Hideaway” is another standout track near the end of the record. It sounds like a modern spin on the Animals or the Zombies. It has that 60s guitar/keyboard vibe to it. It’s another great tune with a groove. I imagine a bunch of people on tequila dancing the Swim to this track. Yet even with all the groove I get from this record it most definitely still rocks. The guitar sounds go from fuzzy to beautiful leads all in the same tune.

“The Evil Has Landed,” which was the second single released prior to the LP, is probably the hardest rocking thing here. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Songs For the Deaf.’ I love the riff on this thing. Homme’s lead guitar on this track is probably the most impressive on the album. “Close… come close…” he repeats… No thank you, Josh.

The album ends on the soaring “Villains of Circumstance.” It’s a great way to end the record… I can’t tell if it’s a love song to his wife or to his kids. (One might theorize that the titular ‘Villains’ Homme references might be his children…) It’s a wonderful tune and leaves me feeling 180 degrees different from how I felt after ‘…Like Clockwork.’ It’s impressive that a rock band/artist can put out such a wonderful variance of moods, tones and songs yet still keep that hard rock/guitar heavy sound.

This one gets my highest recommendation. It’s hard, it rocks, it grooves, it does a lot of different things. Turn this one up loud, invite over some friends, pour some tequila, mute the football on the TV and have a ball!

Cheers!