‘McCartney 3,2,1’ Streaming Now On Hulu – Paul Talks Music With Producer Rick Rubin

McCartney 3,2,1

“Paul was one of the most innovative bass players that ever played the bass.” – John Lennon

I mentioned on a recent post on the great documentary Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) directed by Questlove, how disappointed the Rock Chick and I are about the dearth of new rock n roll coming out these days.  Well, at least a dearth in the rock n roll we’re interested in here at B&V. People kept saying that musicians, unable to tour in 2020 due to Covid, were holing up in studios and taking the time to write new stuff… I haven’t really seen that come to fruition yet in 2021. I will say, I do believe we’re on the cusp of a bunch of new music coming out – both new stuff and archival. Typically when we find ourselves in a bit of a lull on the new release front as we’ve been lately, I find myself turning to the television. After we wrapped up watching the aforementioned Summer Of Soul last weekend we turned to the new, limited series McCartney 3,2,1. Over the course of six, thirty-minute episodes Paul sits down for a candid, lengthy conversation with uber-producer Rick Rubin. As binge watches go, we burned through this one pretty quickly.

First, I’ve always been a big Rick Rubin fan. He’s produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Cult, the Black Crowes, the Beastie Boys, Metallica and AC/DC. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. He literally resurrected Johnny Cash who had been left for dead by the Country Music “establishment.” When producing Black Sabbath’s 13, he told them, “Pretend you’ve just recorded your first album. What comes next?” He’s clearly a vibe guy, not a technician. I saw a documentary about the Avett Brothers and Rick Rubin was producing them. I think he owns and maybe lives in the Malibu studio (named Shangri La) where the Avett Brothers doc was filmed. Bob Dylan and the Band recorded Planet Waves there. The man is a rock n roll Guru…and frankly looks the part.

I am also a huge McCartney fan. When you came of age in the mid to late 70s, McCartney was at a zenith and was most people’s favorite ex-Beatle. Lennon went into semi-seclusion in 1975 when he went into his “house-husband” phase after the birth of his son Sean. The late 70s saw the once promising careers of George Harrison and Ringo Starr sort of… fade. McCartney kind of became the de-facto “favorite” as he was the only one in the public eye in a big way at the time. I will say, even then my brother’s favorite Beatle was George… the Quiet Beatle. Which makes sense as I got the loud/obnoxious gene that he was able to avoid. Were I quizzed now, with the benefit of time and reflection I’d probably say John was my “favorite” Beatle. Although I absolutely love much of George Harrison’s solo output. And, I still love Paul McCartney. His late career stuff from Flaming Pie onward is the type of stuff that B&V was founded on – older artists making phenomenal, oft-overlooked new music. I loved his latest, last year’s McCartney III. Having just written all of that, I can’t help but think that maybe I don’t have a “favorite”… maybe I just like the Beatles.

A few years back I saw Black Sabbath on the tour for the aforementioned 13. I met a dude who plays the drums in a local band, the Sunset Sinners. The guy has been around music and musicians his whole life. We’ve had kind of an on-going dialogue about music and the creative process ever since. He has a term for certain bands, albums or songs. He says some stuff is too “musician-y.” Meaning, that the song or the band is so geared toward other musicians that it may not be popular on a broad scale. He once told me he thought the Queens of the Stone Age were too much of a “musician-y” band that they’d never reach a mass audience. (That was me using the term in a sentence for all you Spelling Bee fans.) It’s like when political commentators talk about conversations that are too “Inside the Beltway,” which I assume means its too “wonky” for most of us folks on the street. Or perhaps when a comedian tells an “inside joke.” Same concept, loosely speaking.

McCartney 3,2,1 finds Paul – and isn’t it cool after all these years we still know him by his first name – and Rick Rubin sitting in a studio (maybe it’s Rick Rubin’s Shangri La, I’m not sure). The show is filmed in black and white which classes everything up. McCartney has on what appears to be jeans, a white t-shirt and a cool jacket. After all this time McCartney, especially without hair-dye, is still the person with the coolest hair in the room. Rick Rubin looks like a beach bum who has wandered in off the strand. Rubin looks indistinct and rumpled. He’s got baggy shorts on with a t-shirt that I’d be willing to bet has food stains on it. He’s barefoot during most of the shoot. At times he sits down with his legs crossed and he really looks like a Rock N Roll Buddha. Buddha is always laughing but Rick Rubin is almost always smiling through his thick and unruly beard. He looks like a rock version of Yosemite Sam. I will say Rick is tan – that comes across even in black and white – and looks trimmer than he used to. The clothes, wild hair (whats left of it) and beard make Rubin look like some crazy, rock n roll aesthete or monk.

The Rock Star and the Producer spend the entire time talking music. It’s clear that Rubin is the fan here, smiling and geeking out at some of the things McCartney is describing. They sit, like in an interview show, but not for long. They’re often standing up as though so excited about the conversation and music that they can’t sit down which is understandable. They stand for the most part at a mixing console where Rubin summons up different songs from McCartney’s past. It’s mostly Beatles stuff but there are a few solo or Wings’ tracks that get played. They keep the conversation very lively although at one point I thanked the Rock Chick for hanging in there for six episodes because it’s basically watching two experts stand around and talk about their craft. It’s like being in a bar and overhearing people talk about their favorite sports team. When Rubin starts a track he usually turns elements of the song up loud and other elements down. He’ll break down the bass part or the drums. He likes to focus on guitar solo’s because, well, who doesn’t? He’s very interested in how the Beatles were able to do things in the studio that nobody had done before. Rubin is like a pupil with a master. I enjoyed that but I thoroughly understand that doing all of that, breaking down/analyzing songs is really well, musician-y. This is inside stuff. Most of us listen to the song on the radio and let the whole thing wash over us. Some of us put the headphones on and try to concentrate on the bass or the drums. These guys take that and blow it up to infinity. You won’t hear a complete song, with all parts played. It’s fascinating to hear how they put together a song but again… you gotta really love music which luckily I do. It really sheds light on a song when you strip it down to the studs.

By deconstructing all of these songs it does make you realize what an amazing bassist McCartney is. He talks about how the bass line in some of the tracks helped change the shape and sound of certain tracks. Nowhere is that more evident than on John’s “Come Together” which started as more of a Chuck Berry riff. McCartney talks a lot about the recording process and how the Beatles came up with certain sounds. He has nothing but praise for producer George Martin. They played a guitar solo and Rubin, who is obviously having the time of his life asks who played the solo. McCartney says, “I want to say I did because it was so bad.” That got a chuckle.

During the course of the six programs, while discussing certain songs and the piece parts of tracks McCartney does share some great Beatles stories. Although be prepared, the conversation is non-linear and they bounce all over the place. One could call it a rambling conversation. On one episode they’re talking Beatles and out of nowhere jump to “Band On the Run” which caused the Rock Chick to say, “Wait, I thought this was a McCartney solo song.” Some of the changes of subject matter may cause a little whiplash. Paul tells about the genesis of the song “Michelle” coming from his going to parties at Lennon’s place when John was in art school and pretending sing in French to get “the girls.” He mentions that Lennon was never complimentary of much but that he once told him he really liked one of Paul’s songs when they heard it during an album playback. You can just tell how much that meant to Paul. Rubin at one point reads a quote where the speaker talks about what a great bass player Paul is. Rubin asks him, “Do you know who said that?” Paul didn’t know but it was John who said all of it (excerpted above). It was a nice moment as you could tell that meant a ton to McCartney. He seemed a little flustered.

He also tells the story of the first time they played with Ringo on drums, “He elevated the whole band.” He also said that George was incredibly generous to “let” Eric Clapton play the guitar solos on Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I’m guessing not a lot of people realized how in the Beatles they all played parts interchangeably on songs – McCartney exclusively played bass but Lennon, he and Harrison all played guitars including lead. Whoever had the hot hand in the band got to play the part. George Martin often jumped in on piano. They were so open to the creative process and that freedom and their confidence let them really do extraordinary things that other bands couldn’t do.

I thought all of this stuff was incredibly fascinating. If you’re a Beatles fan this is a “must see.” Although I will admit and warn everyone again, there are parts of this that are very, very “musician-y.” I watched it all in two sittings and maybe breaking it up a bit would be better if you’re not into the craft and details. Its certainly fun to watch Rick Rubin geek out in such a big way. Paul is still an amazingly charismatic and charming man. You might need to turn it up a little because, a) its the Beatles’ music which needs to be played loud and b) McCartney is prone to mumbling… especially in the scenes where he’s chewing gum. I really enjoyed this rare, up-close-and-personal candid conversation with one of Rock n Roll’s legends. I think you will too.

Cheers!

Review: ‘Summer of Soul…(Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – Brilliant!

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It was last Friday, after a long work week when I wandered out of the cubby hole in the attic I call my office and staggered downstairs to the living room. I flopped down in my chair with an exhausted sigh. The Rock Chick asked me if I’d checked to see if there was any good new music released that day? I don’t know why she even asked, she knows I obsessively check for new music every Friday as that’s the day new music comes out. Sadly I could only say, “Nah, nothing new.” As often happens in my marriage she voiced the very thoughts in my head out loud. “What happened to all this new music that was supposed to come out in 2021, that all the bands we dig were supposed to be working on in lockdown?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly. Usually when new stuff comes out, we’ll pour a drink or two and listen to tunes on Friday night. There have been literally only 4 new LPs that have piqued my interest this year: Cheap Trick, Black Keys, Billy Gibbons and Dirty Honey. I did dig the surprise Bowie birthday single this year, two great covers. I hope those Bowie vaults have more gems…

This Friday, after an even longer work week, I repeated the same ritual of staggering down the stairs. It had been a tough week so I poured myself a tumbler of dark, murky fluid… Four Roses bourbon to be exact. I sat in my easy chair with a hard drink and muttered, “Another week, no new music we’d be interested in.” Not even a single. I guess all the bands I heard were recording: The Cult, The Rolling Stones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with John Frusciante back in the fold, no less!) are either still laboring over their respective new music or they’re waiting to see if this Delta Variant causes touring to be impossible again this year. I hope we don’t see another year of darkened concert halls and empty stages. I think the world really needs music, especially now. I am looking forward to new David Crosby and Jackson Browne LPs next Friday.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my usual spot, sipping bourbon, wondering what Friday night held for the Rock Chick and I. After we dined, she grabbed the remotes and started pulling up Hulu. I don’t know how it works with the remote control in your house. I used to treat the remote to the TV like it was a scepter. He who controls the “power stick” controls the universe. But as the number of remotes needed has multiplied with streaming and such, I’ve ceded control to the Rock Chick. She plans what we binge watch anyway and let’s face it, you have to pick your battles in relationships. As soon as Hulu flickered onto the screen I realized what she was pulling up. I had mentioned the new documentary directed by Questlove – one of the coolest dudes on the planet whose encyclopedic knowledge of music humbles even me – Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised). I had been wanting to see this documentary but had forgotten about it during the turbulent week…I mention something to the Rock Chick once and it’s like a steel trap, it’s gonna happen. I need to start mentioning things like Blanton’s bourbon…but I’m off topic.

The summer of 1968 was a turbulent one in America, especially for Blacks in the inner cities. Martin Luther King, Jr had been assassinated in April and there was broad rioting across America and New York’s Harlem was no exception. Bobby Kennedy was killed in June of ’68 making matters worse. Then reactionary thug Richard Nixon was elected in November. That ain’t no summer of love… what a difference a year makes. In 1969, perhaps in an effort to distract people they put on a series of concerts over six weeks in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now I believe it’s called Marcus Garvey Park). The concerts were billed as the Harlem Cultural Festival. Apparently they had cameras and filmed this event. When you consider Woodstock was just up the road around 100 miles and they filmed it and released a movie, one has to wonder, where has this film been? Apparently all the film of what was known as “Black Woodstock” sat in someone’s basement for 50 years, untouched. It’s been years since I saw Woodstock at the midnight movies at Oak Park Mall, but that was an influential movie for me, quite formative. I can’t help but wonder what impact this footage of Black Woodstock would have had on everybody had it been released similarly.

Questlove did an amazing job as director of this film. I literally had tears in my eyes during certain moments of the film. He took the original concert footage – which is so vibrant and beautifully shot – and mixed in news reel footage to give it all some historical perspective. He interviews a number of the performers who played the Festival. He also – and I loved this – interviewed some of the people who were kids in the crowd that historic summer. The overflowing vibes of Black Power and Black Pride put the aforementioned tears in my eyes. I just loved this film. It was a really difficult time in America and especially for Black Americans… Sadly, it was eerily similar to what we see today… certainly like the summer of 2020. I’d have hoped we’d have made more progress in 50 some years.

The performers and performances also just knocked me out. It started with a young Stevie Wonder singing and playing a righteous drum solo. There was a big Gospel section in the middle of the movie – one might consider it the heartbeat of the film, as it is for so many performers – that featured the Staples (I love Pop on guitar and Mavis!) and Mahalia Jackson. The Fifth Dimension does a couple of songs and they interview Marilyn Mccoo and Billy Davis, Jr. I must say, Florence LaRue is my new rock n roll crush right now. Sly and the Family Stone – one of the first bands to feature men and women, black and white – put on their usual incendiary performance. B.B. King is such a beloved performer, I love his song in the film. Seeing Gladys Knight I realize I will never be, nor have I ever been cool enough to be a Pip…the way those cats move! David Ruffin from the Temptations does a solo set (he’d just left the group) that proves he may be the greatest rock/soul singer ever. Of the performances, I have to admit Nina Simone steals the show. It was a thing of brilliance to end the movie on her performance. It really puts an exclamation point on the film. “Blacklash Blues” is a song for the ages. She was fierce. 

I urge everyone out there to see this film. This is a hugely important historical document. It shows the Black community coming together peacefully to vibe on great music and culture. This was an event that didn’t deserve to be a whispered rumor or fading memory but should be celebrated as the cultural touchstone that it was. Its a great thing for music fans to see this footage but it’s also a great look back to 1969 and what was happening in Harlem. Its a wonderful addition to the Woodstock movie in terms of viewing 1969 musically. I was profoundly moved watching this film. I laughed, I cried… it really got to me. I think it will do that for everyone who watches it. Whoever controls the remote in your house needs to dial this movie up immediately…

Cheers!

 

Review: Tom Petty, ‘Angel Dream’ – Revisiting The ‘She’s The One’ Soundtrack

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“I dreamed you, I saw your face, caught my lifeline when drifting through space, I saw an angel, I saw my fate, I can only thank God it was not too late…” – Tom Petty, “Angel Dream (No. 2)”

I don’t think I ever explicitly tied Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s soundtrack of songs for the movie She’s The One to his prior record, the solo credited (i.e., Tom Petty vs Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) Wildflowers. 1994’s Wildflowers was such a momentously big record and tour by 1996 when it was announced Petty and the Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell, guitar; Ben Tench, keyboards; Howie Epstein, bass; they didn’t have an “official” replacement for departed drummer Stan Lynch) were releasing a soundtrack for a movie, I felt it was probably a stop-gap until the next “actual” album. However, recently the Petty estate decided to revisit the She’s The One soundtrack and remake it as more of an actual Petty LP vs the soundtrack we are all familiar with. They’ve been pitching this album named Angel Dream as the “last chapter” in the Wildflowers story. I questioned that at first but considering that a handful of tracks from the Wildflowers sessions ended up on the soundtrack, it sort of makes sense to me. I feared this might be something akin to the Finding Wildflowers fiasco but it appears not.

It’s always difficult for an artist to follow up a game changing album, especially one as huge as Wildflowers. Fleetwood Mac struggled after Rumours and switched creative directions and recorded the experimental Tusk. The Eagles struggled to follow up Hotel California so they labored and labored over The Long Run. Petty was probably facing a similar daunting task following up Wildflowers so doing a soundtrack ala Queen’s Highlander-centric A Kind of Magic was probably an escape route. Why they didn’t kick out a live album at that time is anyone’s guess? The story I remember about the She’s The One soundtrack was that director/star of the film Ed Burns approached Petty about writing a song for the soundtrack and Petty & his Heartbreakers (with Curt Bisquera playing drums on most the tracks, future Heartbreaker drummer Steve Ferrone only appears on 3 of them) got together with producer Rick Rubin and started jamming. The story went they were having so much fun they ended up with an album’s worth of material. I had no idea at the time that the soundtrack had tunes that originated in the Wildflowers sessions: “Climb That Hill,” “California,” “Hope You Never,” and “Hung Up And Overdue.” If Petty had this much strong material coming into the project, it hardly sounds like the jam I’d been led to believe it was. Petty had always wanted to make Wildflowers a double LP, but the record company talked him out of it. I guess he wanted some of those leftovers to see the light of day so they ended up on She’s The One.

I bought She’s The One almost as soon as it came out. The career momentum of Wildflowers was such that I would have purchased an album of Petty singing Appalachian folk songs accompanied by a banjo at the time… oh and I hate the banjo. I will admit the first single “Walls (Circus)” didn’t exactly grab me. I remember asking a friend of mine if he’d heard it and he said, “That song wouldn’t have even been considered for Wildflowers it’s so awful.” Harsh, indeed. The song is not my favorite, but I still ran to the record store. The song actually didn’t do very well on the charts either despite the fabulous Beach Boys-style backup vocal by Lindsey Buckingham (seriously, listen to that song on headphones and focus on Buckingham’s voice). That was probably a disappointment to the Petty camp at the time, but I figured the soundtrack was just a method to take some of the pressure off Petty having to come up with “Wildflowers 2.0.” I considered it then and still do, more of a minor addition to the Petty catalog.

She’s The One seemed slightly slap-dash, like most soundtracks. There were a couple of instrumentals, “Hope On Board” and “Airport,” likely used as background in the flick. I saw the movie but only remember a little of it. There were two versions each of “Walls” and “Angel Dream” which was unusual. What was also different about this album was it had not one but two covers songs, a rarity for a Petty album. The band did Lucinda Williams’ “Change The Locks,” and I must ask, is there a more perfect paring than Southern boy Tom Petty doing Southern woman Lucinda’s track? Petty also did a cover of Beck’s acoustic track “Asshole.” I loved that Petty was covering an artist who at the time was a relative new comer. And lets face it, “Asshole” is a great song. Petty treats it lovingly.

There are a lot of things to like on the She’s The One soundtrack. I do like both versions of “Angel Dream,” but especially “Angel Dream (No. 2),” quoted above… which could have been written by me about the Rock Chick a few years later. I love the song “California,” which is so catchy it should be on that state’s tourism commercials. I almost picked it for my “Virtual Vacation, 50 Songs/50 States” playlist last summer and I regret not doing so… “Supernatural Radio” is one of those lost, epic gems of a song that everyone should hear. “Zero From Outer Space” is the sound of the Heartbreakers having a really good time playing a surf-style rocker. Interestingly enough, Campbell and Tench would later record an entire LP of surf songs in disguise as the Blue Stingrays, (Friday Night Music Exploration With the Rock Chick: Blue Stones, Blue Stingrays).  “Hope You Never” is another “baby you done me wrong” track which always reminds me of the awful woman I was dating in ’96. While it wasn’t the momentous follow up people were looking for, it was to me an interesting record. Not great but good and Petty’s good stuff is better than most other artist’s great stuff.

The Petty estate decided as part of the Wildflowers story to repackage and re-release this music. Renamed Angel Dream after the strongest track on the original album, they also put some new artwork on the cover. I don’t usually talk about cover art but the choice on this one was… poor. It looks like a greeting card. What has changed on Angel Dream vs She’s The One? They omitted the two original instrumentals, “Hope On Board,” and “Airport.” They paired the two songs that had two versions each down to one version. “Walls (No. 3)” and “Angel Dream (No. 2)” were included and the other versions left off. I will say, in each case, they chose the right version of the song to include and which one to omit. They left off three of the Wildflowers outtakes, “Hope You Never,” “California” and “Hung Up And Overdue” which were included in the Wildflowers All The Rest box. They completely changed the running order of the original tracks. They lead off with “Angel Dream (No 2)” which as a ballad is different. They have included four unreleased songs that supposedly came out of those She’s The One sessions but weren’t included, which I assume is the hook to get us to buy this version: “One of Life’s Little Mysteries,” “105 Degrees,” the J.J. Cale cover “Thirteen Days,” and an instrumental “French Connection.” “French Connection” is just an instrumental version of “Angel Dream (No. 2),” which plays back into the multiple versions theme of the original.

If you don’t own the She’s The One soundtrack, the new running order probably won’t bother you. If I’m being honest, it’s probably a more satisfying listening experience in this new incarnation. It certainly didn’t change my opinion of this album as a minor entry in Petty’s catalog. The new tracks, as a whole, are weaker than the Wildflowers outtakes that were taken off the original for Angel Dream. “One of Life’s Little Mysteries” is an almost old-timey sounding track. It reminded me a little of “The Man Who Loved Women” from The Last DJ. It has that McCartney “Martha My Dear” feel to it. I’m a huge fan of stuff in the vaults but I’d just call “Life’s Little Mysteries” an OK track. It’s a curiosity. The J.J. Cale cover, “Thirteen Days” is the pick of the litter of the new songs. It tells the story of a band barely maintaining their sanity on the road. It’s got a fabulous slide guitar from Mike Campbell. “We’re smoking cigarettes and reefer, drinking coffee and booze.” Sounds kinda fun. “105 Degrees” is a barrel house rocker in the vein of the Animals with a big organ and sawing guitars. “What do you want, perfection?”

If you already have the She’s The One soundtrack, I’d merely suggest checking out the new, unreleased stuff, especially “105 Degrees” and “Thirteen Days.” If you don’t, this is a wholly satisfying listen in it’s own right. In my estimation it’s still a minor episode in the continuing story of Tom Petty but it’s definitely worth a listen… until the next box set of suddenly found material pops up from the Petty camp.

Cheers!

Review: The White Stripes ‘White Blood Cells (Deluxe)’ – Revisiting the LP That Made Them Famous

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The dawn of the new millennium saw a lot of changes for me. In the decade leading up to that landmark year of 2000 I had moved around a lot living on both the Kansas and Missouri sides of the Kansas City state line. I seemed to bounce from apartment to apartment every year or year and half. Perhaps that’s why I always felt like a gypsy despite living exclusively in the area codes of 816 and 913 the entire time. I was always in a constant state of flux. I never even took the time to take everything out of boxes or hang any pictures on the wall. Mine was a Spartan existence, capital letter on purpose… Of course in those days I never wanted to own anything I couldn’t carry to the car in the dead of night while the sound of sirens got closer and closer. I still had my original record crates back then to facilitate getting my albums to the car easily…say what you want, but my priorities were definitely in order… I never wanted to commit to anything that might slow my exit, should it become necessary, and it always seemed necessary.

In the year 2000 all of that changed. I remember as a kid always doing the math on what my age would be in the year 2000 where I expected robot butlers in every home and flying cars… maybe an Earth colony on Mars. I thought the Jetsons cartoon was prophecy. Well, none of that happened. While I did that math on how old I’d be in 2000, I never really thought about what my life would be like then or in the years after it. Things did start to get better for me around that time. My job situation got better. I actually started looking for a house, something my commitment-phobia would never allow prior to that. Things just started to stabilize for me. And when I stopped emitting all that gypsy, rootless energy I finally met a stable, solid woman. Yes, the Rock Chick entered my life.

By 2001, we were living together in a house in Brookside, south of my beloved Plaza in the heart of Kansas City. Alas, my record crates, like most of my pre-marriage property ended up on the curb. Farewell futon, farewell olive colored couch, farewell to my glass kitchen table. Time to make room for new, improved, Rock Chick approved home furnishings. Getting rid of all my stuff was traumatic but I have to admit, I hadn’t had a roommate in years and now I was living with the Rock Chick and her somewhat hostile daughter… thank God for Bob Marley. I had gone from gypsy to Evil Stepdad in the span of a year.

The turn of the millennium was not only a transitional time for me, so too music was in a state of flux. The Grunge movement which had dominated the first half of the 90s had faded away. Kurt Cobain had sadly taken his own life. Soundgarden had broken up. Layne Staley of Alice In Chains had practically disappeared into a heroin haze. Pearl Jam released Binaural which was a solid LP, but I felt it fell short of the heights of some of their previous work like Ten, VS, Vitalogy or even Yield. It just felt like Pearl Jam wasn’t swinging for the fences anymore. True, Grunge had punched itself out by the latter half of the 90s but it had given way to what they were then calling “alternative rock.” There was some really good stuff that came out during the late 90s but I had done what I had done in college – I’d turned backwards in time to music from previous decades. I was really into the Velvet Underground and the Clash at the time. I did catch some of the great alternative stuff that was coming out like Fiona Apple or Beck, I wasn’t completely unaware. I was also looking into some of the singer songwriters that I’d missed: Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. I just didn’t feel connected to current music any more, something I never thought would happen. I was concerned at the time that Grunge was the last great musical movement.

I was lucky when I met the Rock Chick for many reasons, but one of the foremost was her music taste. She turned me onto a lot of stuff that I’d missed or ignored: The Cult, Social Distortion, Motley Crue and Green Day. Luckily for me she was also a little more connected to the rock music that was then current. I started tuning back in to the radio and what was going on. At the time there was this new “Garage Rock” thing going on. I couldn’t help but think, “Garage rock, Hell yes, deal me in.” There were all these bands playing loud, fast rock n roll. On paper this should have been perfect for me. There were the Von Bondies, the Hives with Veni Vidi Vicious or Hot Hot Heat who an ex-girlfriend sent me a CD from. The Rock Chick was particularly into the Yeah, Yeah Yeahs and Karen O. I jumped into the fray on this whole scene with the band that had most the hype, The Strokes and their debut LP, Is This It? I know this will be considered blasphemy by the rock n roll faithful who follow B&V but the Strokes just left me cold. They came across like hipster kids with rich parents. I couldn’t dig the lead vocalist at all. It sounded like he was singing through a running fan. I was on the verge of giving up and going back to my Clash albums when a band emerged to save me… that band was the White Stripes.

I was actually watching some MTV Awards show and they had the White Stripes play the final song of the night. “Honey, who is this? Is that a chick on drums? Where’s the rest of the band?” The Rock Chick quickly played me the “hits” they’d been playing on the radio, “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With A Girl.” This was the garage rock I had been searching for. I was convinced this was the next great band. With a little research I found that these tracks were from their third LP, White Blood Cells. I quickly decamped to the record store – lets be honest, the CD store – and picked up this album. Little did I know that I was holding the White Stripes’ landmark, breakthrough album. As I wrote last year about their Greatest Hits album, to paraphrase, I fell in love with a band.

The White Stripes were Jack White on guitar/vocals/keyboards/songwriting/production and Meg White on drums. Just typing out “Meg White on drums” seems reductive because she was a monster on the kit. Much has been said of her “caveman” style of drumming but that simple, straightforward yet visceral attack on the skins allowed Jack White to soar on guitar and vocals. When I saw them live – and I did so on two subsequent tours after White Blood Cells – Jack would always wander the stage, shredding on guitar but he always ended up back at the drum kit, the heartbeat of the White Stripes’ sound. Jack would always introduce Meg as his “sister” but in truth they’d been married and were divorced. Jack said later that he was telling people Meg was his sister to avoid that “Fleetwood Mac drama,” which actually makes total sense to me, but I love Fleetwood Mac.

There is so much to love on White Blood Cells. There’s the aforementioned “hits” like “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With a Girl.” I loved that they had this guitar-forward garage rock thing but I could hear blues in what they did. Probably more so on their 2 earlier LPs, but it’s still there on White Blood Cells on great tracks like “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known.” They could also go acoustic with great success on tracks like everyone’s favorite, “We’re Going To Be Friends,” which sounds like Rubber Soul-era Beatles. Rock tracks like “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman,” “The Union Forever,” and “Offend In Every Way” continue to resonate with me. They could be frantic and intense and I just loved it. Everyone should have White Blood Cells.

I was doing research on the 50th anniversary of a number of legendary LPs from 1971 recently, and I didn’t realize it’d been twenty years since White Blood Cells came out. If you’d asked me about an LP from 2001 I’d have said, “Yeah that’s about 10 years ago, right?” To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this fabulous record, Jack White and the folks down at Third Man Records have released a “deluxe” edition of the album. Much like Lou Reed’s deluxe edition of New York last year, White Blood Cells (Deluxe) is the original LP with a bonus disc containing a live concert where the Stripes play WBC in it’s entirety from start to finish. On Lou Reed’s New York Deluxe Edition, they pieced together the live performance of the LP from different performances. Despite that it hung together… Unlike that, this performance by the Stripes is one show. They recorded this at a show at The Gold Dollar club in Detroit (now gone apparently). Jack walks on stage, introduces his “sister” Megan and says, “We’re going to perform our new album White Blood Cells in it’s entirety for you.” That’s about all he says to the affectionate crowd. He does mention at the end, that they’d played the same room a few years earlier and there were only about three people in the audience… I’m guessing from the sound of it there were a few more there the night they played this show.

It’s probably no surprise, but I love this live performance. It feels more raw, less polished than the studio LP. Not that the studio LP was overly “polished.” Meg White’s drumming in particular is ferocious. As I said, I got to see this band twice and I always thought they brought it. It’s nice to hear them come out and go from quiet to loud, hard rocking to ballad and do so seamlessly. They completely nail it in these performances. I can only say I wish I had been there. The question I always ask myself on these “deluxe” packages is, is it worth? First and foremost, if you don’t already own White Blood Cells, buy the deluxe as you will absolutely want this live concert. Even though I already own this album I am absolutely purchasing this deluxe package as I think the live set is absolutely worth it. Any live White Stripes – or live Jack White, for that matter – you can get your hands on, do so. If I have any complaints, its that there is no bonus studio material… I guess we’ll have to wait on that for the 30th anniversary…

If anything, this music has me thinking back to those fun early days of becoming a family. I have intensely positive memories tied to this music… Luckily it’s kick ass music. And this live performance of the record only enhances it in my estimation. The White Stripes were such a great band. I’d love to see Meg come back from out there in the wilderness and play with Jack again… if she still even plays. I will always tell people to get into the White Stripes. They will go down as one of the greatest rock band ever… if B&V has any say in the matter. This titanic live performance ought to help seal their fabulous legacy.

Cheers!

Playlist, We Look Back 50 Years to: 1971

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*Image of George Harrison & Ravi Shankar in 1971 taken from the internet and likely copyrighted

Rather than push myself and graduate in four years, I stuck around to take what they now call a “victory lap.” I guess I just wasn’t into that “whole completion thing.” My fifth year in college I was taking a lighter load of classes and hanging out at parties and taverns quite a bit. I figured I was going to work my whole life – and I have – why rush towards the drudgery. But that “party-all-the-time” lifestyle can get dull. I was taking some un-required history classes at the time and I dug that whole research thing. Bored, I went to the Manhattan (Kansas) Public Library – not the campus library – and looked up old Rolling Stone issues on microfilm. Or maybe it was microfiche, I get them confused. I later confounded and thoroughly bored my disinterested roommates with a long lecture on rock history about how the mid-70s were a better time for music than the mid-80s. Seger’s peak years were the mid to late 70s. Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town came out in ’78. Petty’s rise to fame came during that time. Perhaps that odd afternoon was a precursor to B&V… it’s hard to tell…there was likely drink involved. Doing the research for this post, on the music released in 1971, its hard not feel the way I did in the Manhattan Public Library… music was just better back then. And I say that knowing I risk sounding like the meme, “old man yells at cloud.”

I’ve been seeing a whole lot on the landmark year of 1971 since this year means its 50 years behind us. There are a lot of albums and events that are having 50th anniversaries this year so ’71 is hot right now. I figured, why not get in on the ’71 action? I recently posted on the 50th anniversary box set for CSNY’s Deja Vu (originally released in ’70) and joked that I needed to let my hair grow and maybe get one of those groovy fringed leather jackets… maybe some tie dye. I have to admit the research I did while putting this post together had me feeling that groovy hippy vibe again. I definitely think I’d have been a hippy. I like to think I’d be out there somewhere at a protest meeting up with women who burned thier bras. More likely, I’d gone into a deep Hunter S. Thompson jag… staggering around with grapefruits and cocktails… While there were some great albums to come out in 1971 a lot of heavy shit went down as well. I was too young to remember a lot of it… I don’t think I was even in grade school yet in ’71. Maybe I was in kinder garden?

The Baby Boomers who eventually became the Youth Movement of the 60s really thought they could change the world. They were going to right a lot of wrongs. But with the election in 1968 of reactionary conservative (and later criminal thug) Richard Nixon the Hippy Dream (as I like to call it) slipped away. By the 70s, cynicism had replaced much of the idealism that had been prevalent. Nixon didn’t end the Vietnam war, he expanded it. In 1971 specifically he expanded it into Laos. The war was rending the country in two. There was racial strife. Gloria Steinem rose to prominence in the new women’s movement. There were continuing protests – even though in ’70 National Guardsmen turned their guns on Kent State students. Groups like the Weather Underground were kidnapping people. Nixon declared his “War on Drugs.” Verdicts came down on the My Lai massacre and the Manson Family murders. Like I said, it was a heavy time. It wasn’t all bad news… We still had moon landings to enjoy. And hey, Green Peace was formed. As I looked at what America was like in 1971, sadly it didn’t look much different than how things are today: a nation divided, racial strife, protests, greed trumping the needs of the environment. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Although, admittedly, the music was better then.

The music of 1971 really reflects all of what was going on at the time. I’ve never been a fan of codifying music by decades – the 60s or the 70s. I don’t think shifts in music respond to the calendar. There are always bands who transcend decades like Van Halen or the Cars from ’75 to ’85. However, I think ’71 is an especially interesting year as it’s likely the demarcation line in terms of the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s. By ’71 the vaunted Beatles had broken up and all of them had begun their solo careers in earnest. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had all gone their separate ways for solo stardom. The Stones had gone into tax exile in the south of France. Sadly, Hendrix and Janis Joplin had both passed away by misadventure. Jim Morrison lived long enough to see 1971 and record a last Doors album, but then died mysteriously in Paris. The 60s really did come to an actual end and the cynical, greedy 70s had begun. All of that can be pegged to 1971. You can almost feel the 60s bands and ethos receding like low tide and ushering in the new era that was the 70s. It was a total sea change.

In ’71 at the dawn of the 70s, the social strife really began to surface in the music. There are a lot of protest or political songs/albums that came out that year. And frankly there were just a ton of great albums that came out in 1971, a truly amazing year for music. Whether it was solo stuff from guys who were in big bands in the 60s (Beatles, CSNY) or artists just starting out (Bonnie Raitt, John Prine had debuts) there were some classic rock LPs released in ’71. Pink Floyd released their best pre-Dark Side of the Moon LP and Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and the Who were at career zeniths. Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen all unleased career topping masterpieces. Even the King, Elvis Presley showed he still had a lot in the tank. 1971 saw several bands release 2 LPs in the year, which is inconceivable now: Yes, Alice Cooper, and the Faces. Hell, Rod Stewart released 2 LPs with the Faces and his best solo album. The LPs that came out that year are truly some of the best rock has to offer. I went through every LP I could think of from ’71 and I pulled 1 song off each LP for this playlist. I had to lay down some limit. I will admit right up front, I left off Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain and James Brown Hot Pants because unlike George Michael who was “Too Funky” I am simply, not funky. Come to think of it, George Micheal and I have absolutely nothing in common.

Here’s my playlist of tracks from 1971. There were so many great albums and I tried to hit most of them, but again I limited myself to 1 song per album. Often I picked the best known track/anthem from an LP but for some I reached a little deeper onto the album. I have listed artist, album, song. The playlist can be found on Spotify under “BourbonAndVinyl.net 1971.” My advice is to shuffle these tracks, but they hold up pretty good start to finish as listed. Put this playlist on, turn it up, pour something strong and pretend this is the coolest radio station in the world… broadcasting live from a basement studio in some unmarked university administration building, occupied for a protest in 1971… What a year it was…and I hope this playlists celebrates all those great ’71 LPs…

  1. Marvin Gaye, What’s Goin’ On, “What’s Goin’ On” – Marvin giving us the state of the union on this great song, still relevant today. Powerful stuff.
  2. Jimi Hendrix, Cry Of Love, “Freedom” – From the first posthumously released Hendrix LP.
  3. Graham Nash, Songs For Beginners, “Military Madness” – Continuing our politically charged theme… from Graham’s first and best solo album. Reeling from his breakup with Joni Mitchell, Nash delivers the goods on this album.
  4. Faces, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink…, “Stay With Me” – Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Lane and co deliver their biggest “hit.” Like Zeppelin they weren’t really a hit making band. They were just a great rock band. This was the second of two LPs from them in 1971.
  5. Al Green, Gets Next To You, “I Can’t Get Next To You” – Even in this song of frustration, the Reverend Al still sounds happy. Does he have any sad songs? Smooth, smooth voice.
  6. The Kinks, Muswell Hillbillies, “20th Century Man” – Unable to tour America because of a drug bust I always felt the Kinks turned a little insular. Great album though.
  7. Bill Withers, Just As I Am, “Ain’t No Sunshine” – In my opinion, the late great Bill Withers’ best song.
  8. Traffic, The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” – The epic 11 minute song… I do seem drawn to the long tracks.
  9. Van Morrison, Tupelo Honey, “Tupelo Honey” – Another title track… One of my all time favorite love songs. I would have danced to this at my wedding except for the Rock Chick’s mysterious hatred of Van Morrison. Well that and its like 8 minutes long. I can’t do things I like for 8 minutes let alone dance for that long.
  10. Yes, Fragile, “Roundabout” – Yes is another band that put out two albums in 1971. It’s nice to see some prog rock on here…
  11. James Taylor, Mudslide Slim, “You’ve Got A Friend” – JT covering his friend Carole King’s track on an LP whose name he perhaps regrets.
  12. Leonard Cohen, Songs Of Love And Hate, “Famous Blue Raincoat” – One of Cohen’s most famous songs from one of his most famous albums. I love Leonard.
  13. David Crosby, If I Could Only Remember My Name, “Cowboy Movie” – I’ve never understood why this great rock tune wasn’t a standard on rock radio like “Freebird” or “Stairway to Heaven.”
  14. Janis Joplin, Pearl, “Me And Bobby McGee” – Sad that her biggest hit had to be posthumous.
  15. Alice Cooper, Killer, “Under My Wheels” – Another band who put out two landmark, career albums in 1971. I can’t imagine that happening in 2021.
  16. George Harrison, The Concert For Bangladesh, “Bangla Desh” – George set the blueprint for charity rock concerts with this show. My friend Ron attended and said it was spectacular. I couldn’t find the live version from the concert album so I went with this studio version that they dropped on another LP as a bonus track.
  17. Santana, Santana III, “No One To Depend On” – There are few guitarists like Carlos Santana whose tone is as recognizable and distinct as a vocalist.
  18. Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson, “Jump Into the Fire” – I feel like Harry could have been a lot bigger than he was. I think this track is brilliant but even I admit the in-song drum solo is… indulgent?
  19. Elton John, Madman Across the Water, “Madman Across the Water” – One of my favorite Elton “deep tracks.” I could have gone with “Tiny Dancer” from this great LP, but we’re not really a “Tiny Dancer” blog.
  20. The Allman Brothers Band, Live At The Fillmore East, “Statesboro Blues” – For the most part I avoided live LPs for this list but this LP and this song are too epic to ignore.
  21. Yes, The Yes Album, “Yours Is No Disgrace” – I still have this album on vinyl and yes, it does get played here at the B&V labs.
  22. John Lennon, Imagine, “Imagine” – Eschewing the pain and screaming of Plastic Ono Band, Lennon indulges his utopian side on this, his greatest solo track.
  23. Ike & Tina Turner, Workin’ Together, “Proud Mary” – Their best LP… as a duo anyway. Tina and company own this CCR track.
  24. Paul McCartney, Ram, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” – Ram was credited to Paul and Linda McCartney but I think that was designed to expand their cut of the publishing. It’s a great record but I chose this rather cheesy, Beatlesque track to show the contrast of how far apart Lennon (no. 23) and McCartney had grown from each other. The songs couldn’t be farther apart in style, tone etc.
  25. Sly & the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, “Family Affair” – This is one of my all time favorite tracks from the oft-overlooked genius of Sly Stone.
  26. Alice Cooper, Love It To Death, “I’m Eighteen” – A perfect expression of teenage male Id.
  27. Pink Floyd, Meddle, “One Of These Days” – Probably my favorite LP from the period after Syd Barrett and up to Dark Side of the Moon. This harks back to the time before Roger Waters took “control.”
  28. Black Sabbath, Masters Of Reality, “Sweet Leaf” – Sabbath’s ode to pot on what to me is their heaviest album.
  29. T. Rex, Electric Warrior, “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” – I don’t feel Marc Bolan and T. Rex ever got their due in America. This is an iconic track from an iconic album. The Power Station later covered this song.
  30. Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story, “Maggie May” – Rod not only put out this, his best solo LP, he did two albums with the Faces. Amazing year for him.
  31. Carole King, Tapestry, “I Feel The Earth Move” – King stepped out of the shadows of being a songwriter and delivers her greatest album.
  32. David Bowie, Hunky Dory, “Changes” – Bowie’s signature tune from one of my favorite Bowie LPs.
  33. The Doors, L.A. Woman, “L.A. Woman”  – Jim Morrison’s last, brilliant album. I chose the title track for it’s L.A. noir, but there were some great blues stuff on this album too.
  34. James Gang, Thirds, “Walk Away” – It was Joe Walsh’s last LP with the James Gang but he delivered this timeless rock n roll classic.
  35. ZZ Top, ZZ Top’s First Album, “Backdoor Love Affair” – Our first salvo from that Little Ol’ Band From Texas.
  36. Jethro Tull, Aqualung, “Locomotive Breath” – I could have gone with the title track but I just prefer this propulsive tune.
  37. Led Zeppelin, IV, “Rock N Roll” – I felt “Stairway To Heaven” was overplayed so I went with this one… which is probably also overplayed. Zeppelin’s crowning achievement of an album.
  38. Bonnie Raitt, Bonnie Raitt, “Mighty Tight Woman” – Great little blues cover from Bonnie Raitt. I love her early blues stuff.
  39. Joni Mitchell, Blue, “All I Want” – I’m not a huge Mitchell fan but you can’t ignore Blue, her masterpiece.
  40. The Temptations, Sky’s The Limit, “Just My Imagination” – Later covered ably by the Stones… but you’ve got to love the Temps’ version.
  41. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” – Speaking of the Stones… I could have gone with “Brown Sugar” but I love this tune, the riff and the extended jazz jam at the end. One of guitarist Mick Taylor’s finest moments with the Stones.
  42. The Who, Who’s Next, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…” Says it all.
  43. War, All Day Music, “Slippin’ In To Darkness” – A great, ominous track from the funk masters.
  44. Stevie Wonder, Where I’m Comin’ From, “Do Yourself A Favor” – This is a great track that I feel is slightly overlooked.
  45. Fleetwood Mac, Future Games, “Show Me A Smile” – From probably the best post-Peter Green, pre-Buckingham/Nicks Mac album. Christine McVie delivers a beautiful ballad.
  46. Gene Clark, White Light, “White Light” – Former Byrd Gene Clark never sold in the numbers he should have but he accomplished the blend of country and rock that Gram Parson’s kept trying to pull off.
  47. Crazy Horse, Crazy Horse, “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” – Neil Young’s once and future backing band’s debut LP. This song, later covered by Rod Stewart, was Danny Whitten’s finest hour.
  48. Badfinger, Straight Up, “Day After Day” – Great song from a band I think I need to get more into.
  49. The Isley Brothers, Givin’ It Back, “Ohio/Machine Gun” – The most striking tune on a very striking album. The Isley Brothers mash up CSNY’s “Ohio” and Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” in an amazing protest anthem. This is a track everyone should hear.
  50. John Prine, John Prine, “Illegal Smile” – It’s a shame we just lost John Prine last year. This track from his debut is one of his most famous tunes.
  51. Elvis Presley, Elvis Country, “Tomorrow Never Comes” – It may have been 1971 but the King was far from being a spent force. He’d gone to Memphis and spent a week recording that resulted in two landmark rock n roll LPs. He did the same thing here – only this time went to Nashville and recorded two LPs of fantastic country-ish music. “Tomorrow Never Comes” shows Elvis was in tune with the times.
  52. The Band, Cahoots, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” – The Band were always the greatest interpreters of Dylan… This was the first official recorded version of the song released. Dylan’s oft bootlegged version came out officially later.
  53. John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat, Hooker N Heat, “Whiskey and Wimmen'” – This is a great blues album. Canned Heat and John Lee were great together.
  54. Faces, Long Player, “Bad N Ruin” – Long Player may be my favorite album from the Faces… I once played this song on a radio show the Rock Chick and I did on a Public Radio station morning show… it’s a long story.
  55. Aretha Franklin, Aretha Live At Fillmore West, “Love The One You’re With” – One of only three live tracks here but a monumental live LP from Aretha. I don’t know why this wasn’t on our favorite live LPs list. Its amazing how many artists covered this Stephen Stills’ tune.
  56. B.B. King, Live In Cook County Jail, “How Blue Can You Get?” – One of B.B. King’s finest live LPs, along with Live at the Regal. One of B.B.’s finest tracks, live at a jail.
  57. Free, Highway, “The Stealer” – One of their greatest songs. I don’t know why they were merely a one-hit wonder in the States. I know Rod Stewart was a huge Free fan. Paul Rodgers delivers the goods on vocals.
  58. Humble Pie, Rock On, “Shine On” – Peter Frampton delivers on lead guitar and vocals on this track from his last studio LP with Humble Pie.
  59. J. Geils Band, The Morning After, “Lookin’ For a Love” – J. Geils were such a great blues rock band, it’s a shame they are mostly known for “Freeze Frame.” I urge everyone to check out their early LPs.
  60. Little Feat, Little Feat, “Willin'” – A song about “weed, whites and wine” that got Lowell George fired from Frank Zappa’s band. He formed Little Feat and recorded this for their debut LP. Later covered by Linda Ronstadt.

I’ve likely missed an LP or a song from 1971 but I feel like I’ve captured that year relatively comprehensively. If you’ve got an album or song I missed, please suggest it in the comments section and I’ll add it to the Spotify playlist. It was hard to pick just 1 song from these landmark LPs. I’ve seen ads for a documentary named “1971: The Year That Music Changed.” I’m not sure music changed. I do think it evolved in tone and subject matter from the utopian dreams of the 60s to a more cynical, societal-focused bent in 1971. But that would soon give way to the greed and corruption of the decadent 70s. Who knew punk and disco were lurking on the horizon. Music tends to change every year, slowly but surely. I will say that 1971 was a simply smashing year for music. Turn this up loud.

Cheers!

A Brief Word On David Bowie’s January Birthday Single, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”/”Mother”

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I like to pride myself on always being aware of when new music is coming out. Be it an actual brand new song or LP from a band or a “new” previously unreleased track from the vaults. I’m always looking for stray B-sides or soundtrack tunes. I’m typically a pretty focused “watcher on the wall.” Well, in rock n roll terms, anyway. There’s a lot that seems to get by me anymore but I digress. The only reason I got onto any social media platform in the first place was to follow the Stones. And that of course led to other bands. I quickly realized that news on new music and upcoming concert tours tends to drop on “the social media.” It became a great source of information. Beyond that, I even continue to read rock n roll magazines: Uncut, Rolling Stone (although God only knows why I still do), and Classic Rock to name but a few. But alas, every now and then something gets past me. A band will release an album, or more likely, a single and I don’t hear about it or more importantly hear the music until months later. That is exactly what happened to me this week.

I was doing some research for my post for this upcoming weekend. I tend to listen to stuff all week and write about it on weekends…I needed a hobby. I was out on Spotify doing this aforementioned research. I tend to use Spotify the way I used to use the file sharing sites. I use it to discover and check out new music – or more accurately stuff I’m unfamiliar with – and then go out and buy the stuff I like so the artist gets paid. Spotify is never my chosen music delivery mechanism, but it does serve a purpose. I was looking around my Spotify home page and I discovered this “For You” section. They had all these playlists out there creatively titled, “Daily Mix 1” or “Daily Mix 2.” Usually I blow past stuff like that. I’ll pick my own music, thank you. But I was intrigued at the division of the four or five playlists… they seemed well curated based on my and the Rock Chick’s varied tastes. I plunged into one and scanned the fifty songs… and to my surprise, the last track on one of the playlists was David Bowie, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven,” a Bob Dylan cover. After some quick research I discovered the song came out January 8th of this year, 2021, six months ago.

Since Bowie’s tragic passing, his estate started releasing stuff on his birthday, the aforementioned January 8th. In 2017 they released the EP No Plan, with tracks Bowie recorded for the play he was working on at the end, Lazarus. I thought they’d actually gotten away from doing the Bowie birthday release thing, now 5 years removed from his death. But, embarrassingly unbeknownst to me, Bowie’s estate released a single this year to celebrate his birthday. Now, in my defense, I was a little preoccupied on Bowie’s birthday this year with the aftermath of the armed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. Perhaps I can forgive myself for missing the release of a song even if it is by one of my most beloved artists since traitorous rioters were occupying the U.S. Capitol…but this is not a political blog, we’re lovers here at B&V, not fighters.

As I’ve often mentioned, I dig a good cover song. It’s like a “two-for-one.” You get to groove on the artist singing the cover song and it takes you back to the original artist’s recording. It’s a layered experience. Over the course of his career Bowie wrote so many staggeringly great songs. But, he also always had impeccable taste in cover songs. He’s one of the artists who did an entire album of covers songs, Pin-Ups. On that album he covered great songs by the Who, the Pretty Things, Them (Van Morrison’s original band) and even threw in a track by Springsteen (“Growin’ Up”). As late in his career as 2002’s gem Heathen, Bowie covered Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” a track off Young’s debut LP. Bowie just always had a way of plucking out an obscure song and making it his own. On the 2003 follow-up Reality he did a couple of great cover songs by George Harrison (“Try Some Buy Some”) and Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers (“Pablo Picasso”). Those tracks were highlights on that album. I’m proud to say I saw Bowie on the Reality tour, a true highlight for me and the Rock Chick.

After discovering “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” on Spotify, I started looking to buy the track. It was then that I discovered the B-side was “Mother” a cover of the John Lennon track from Plastic Ono Band. I couldn’t help but think, a Dylan cover with a Lennon cover… bonus! I can not stop listening to these tracks. “Tryin’ To Get to Heaven” was originally done by Dylan on his 1997 album Time Out of Mind which was seen as a comeback for him. The album (and song) were produced by Daniel Lanois and has that Lanois rootsy, bluesy feel. Dylan’s voice is gravelly. The track starts off with piano and Dylan’s voice, punctuated with guitar. It’s a beautiful ballad on the album. Bowie’s version is much more “modern” sounding. It’s synth and drums with the guitar coming in later. Naturally Bowie’s vocal is smoother than Dylan’s. The guitar on this version is more alt sounding. It makes the track more muscular. Bowie totally captures the lonely wanderer vibe of the track. It’s more ethereal and more soaring than Dylan’s. I can’t believe this never got released.

The Lennon cover, “Mother” is probably one of Lennon’s most personal songs. He wrote it about the abandonment he felt at the loss of his mother when he was a teen and his father bolting the family prior to that. Lennon and Yoko Ono had been going to primal scream therapy prior to recording it and his vocals come across on the original as just that, both primal and screaming. He’s obviously exorcising a demon or two. Apparently Bowie recorded his version of the song for a 1998 Lennon tribute album that never came out. I’m a little stunned they left this one in the can this long as well. Bowie’s version doesn’t have that visceral pain that Lennon’s did but he does dig deep on the vocals. Again as on the other track Bowie’s vocals just seem more soaring. Bowie imbues the track with a beautiful strength. He does capture the pathos but with so much less pain than Lennon. There’s no screaming here but Bowie sings the shit out of this song. I was just stunned by the performance.

Here is a link to both tracks:

I searched for the 411 on these tracks – who played guitar, drums etc – but you can’t find any details out there. There were a number of announcement articles in the press which I apparently missed. I do believe that Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer for many of his greatest albums, produced “Mother.” I wish I knew more.

Hearing these two tracks makes me hope there’s even more in those Bowie vaults… I guess we’ll have to wait for next January 8th. These were a fitting birthday gift from Bowie, on his birthday, to all of us who loved him and miss him so much.

Cheers!

Billy F Gibbons Latest, ‘Hardware’ – A Straight Up Rocker From ZZ Top’s Front Man

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I’ve been bouncing all around musically this week. I’ve been deeply into the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary Edition for a couple of weeks now and that continued this week. I found myself going from that to Dylan’s Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol 10 for no other reason than I saw it was the anniversary of the original Self Portrait recently… I seemed to be stuck in a late 1969, early 1970 groove…maybe I should get a leather fringe jacket and some beads. To shake it up I bounced to the Black Crowes’ Warpaint. That southern rock got me thinking about ZZ Top and that’s when it hit me that Billy F. Gibbons (or just Billy Gibbons as I’ve always known him) had just put out a new solo record, Hardware. The next thing I knew I was cranking that and of course, his original band, ZZ Top. I went back and listened to ZZ’s La Futura. I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years since that album was released (in 2012). That was a great, Rick Rubin-produced comeback album. Rubin always seems to find a way to get a band to do what they do best. “I Gotsta Get Paid” is a true ZZ Top highlight. I need to do one of my “Lookback” posts about that one… 

My love of ZZ Top goes back as far as my love of rock n roll. As I’ve shared often on this site, my first LP purchase was the Stones’ Some Girls. After that, I was hooked, my life forever changed. I was a music collector. It was late ’78, maybe early ’79. There was so much rock and roll to choose from…I was so far behind. I wanted to collect all of this great music released in the 60s and 70s but like anybody I was drawn to what was then current. I remember I only owned maybe half a dozen records and my dad asking me, “Do you really need all of these albums?” Famously a smart ass, I asked my father in response, “You realize there’s different music on each album, right?” We didn’t talk much after that until I was 30 but I digress. I remember my burgeoning record collection consisted of: The Stones’ Some Girls, Van Halen, Supertramp’s Breakfast In America (which I eventually traded to my brother for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours), Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-1978, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (which was a must have album, if just as a badge of “coolness”), Led Zeppelin (I still have a soft spot for that debut) and believe it or not – the Blues Brothers, Briefcase Full of Blues. My friend’s “hot” sister, Stacy owned that record and since she was a few years older I figured it was cool. Actually that record is how I started to realize that most the bands and music I was into was based on the blues. So good on you Messrs. Belushi and Aykroyd. 

In 1979, ZZ Top had been away on hiatus. The last ZZ Top LP, at the time, had been Tejas in 1976. They had been gone for three years, a lifetime back then. My friend Brewster always said the hiatus was because bass player Dusty Hill had been taking off his cowboy boots and a revolver had tumbled out and shot him in the leg. Having seen the documentary ‘ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,’ I’m not sure that Brewster story is true, funny though it is… As an aside, I did see ZZ Top open up for the Stones in Houston a couple of years later. The show was in the Astrodome. This biker I ended up standing next to, on the floor in the crush in front of the stage, said to me after ZZ Top had played and the roadies were sweeping off the stage, “The roadies have to sweep up all the mud that came off those guys’ cowboy boots,” like they’d been rustling cattle or something. Again, I’m not sure that’s true either but I’m getting distracted again… So many ZZ Top stories. Having been dormant since 1976, I’m not sure that I was aware that all those great southern rock, boogie blues tunes were the same band, let alone knew it was ZZ Top. I’d heard tracks like “Tush,” and “La Grange” but I’m not sure I’d put it together those were all from the same band… I was truly a novice. Hey, I always thought Genesis’ “Misunderstanding” was Journey with Gregg Rollie on lead vocals. That wasn’t cleared up for me until college. 

So, in 1979 I started hearing this great new song on KY102, the local rock station, “I Thank You.” I dug the music but the lyrics sounded like they were slyly vulgar, which was a plus. Beyond thanking a woman for loving him… this line pops up, “You didn’t have to squeeze it but you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you.” That line had me thinking there was more to this story… there were just too many “but you did(s)” in the song. It was only later that I found out it was a cover tune written in part by Isaac Hayes. I dug the song and I was interested in this ZZ Top, but with only 6 or 7 albums to my name and a salary derived from mowing lawns, I had to be very careful about which LPs I purchased. I quickly determined the new LP was called Deguello, but I still hesitated. I had this 3 song rule… if I heard three tracks I dug, I bought the record. That was my ROI, three songs. Sigh. After hearing “Cheap Sunglasses” I was almost ready to jump in… Finally I heard “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” and that settled it, I had to have this album. I purchased it the next time I could convince my mom to drive me to the mall… Yes, I was still in junior high. Needless to say, that album started a life long connection between ZZ Top and myself. Gibbons had spent his 3 years away absorbing punk rock and psychedelic influences and it paid off. Although even I’ll admit that it was hit and miss after Eliminator all the way to La Futura. I still consider Antenna a great record. 

I had actually heard that ZZ Top was working on a new band LP. I had heard drummer Frank Beard and the aforementioned, Brewster slandered, bass player Dusty Hill were excited about going back into the studio. I was down for another ZZ Top LP after the great La Futura. So I was a bit surprise that guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons had decided to do another solo record. Maybe it was a COVID issue. I remember back in 2000, being in Denver at a Rush cover-band show in a bar up in the mountains. Geddy Lee had just put out his first and only solo record. A friend of mine said to me, “Who needs a Geddy Lee solo record?” Harsh, indeed. Musicians likely get tired of working with the same guys and need a break – especially in the case of someone like Gibbons whose band has been together 50+ years. Sometimes they have material that’s just too personal or they just wanna record different types of music. I never fault a guy for going solo. I will admit, Billy’s first solo LP, 2015’s Latin-tinged Perfectamundo was not my cup of tea. I loved his 2018 LP, The Big Bad BluesI saw that album described as “covers heavy” but there were a lot of Gibbons’ originals. His wife even wrote a tune, “Missin’ Yo Kissin’.” Say what you want about the Rock Chick, she’s never tried to muscle in on the publishing… 

For Hardware, Billy assembled much of the same crew from the last record. He produced the record with Mike Fiorentino and Matt Sorum of GnR and the Cult fame, who also plays drums. I know rhythm guitarist Austin Hawks is also on this record too. Alas, long time ZZ Top engineer Joe Hardy who played bass on Gibbons’ previous two solo records passed away. While Perfectamundo was a Latin, percussive record and The Big Bad Blues was steeped in, yes, the blues – both records could perhaps be seen as genre exercise – Hardware is a straight up rock record. Well, as straight up as Billy F Gibbons is capable of. Gibbons put out a single last year, “Hot Rod” that could have been a bonus track on Eliminator, but it is not on this album. Hardware is the most “ZZ Top” sounding solo record Gibbons has done. 

Hardware is what you would expect in a Billy Gibbons record: lots of guitar, big riffs, bluesy solos, and sly (and sometimes not so sly) humor. Parts of this record remind me of Deguello. The first single was “West Coast Junkie” and it gives me a California vibe that pervades this entire record. It’s a surf rock tune punctuated by Billy doing his “Reverend Billy F Gibbons” schtick. The final track, a spoken word thing not unlike “Heaven Hell Or Houston,” also conjures a California, hot desert wind. You can feel dust on your skin… The first four or five tracks have a seriousness that Billy usually doesn’t evince. It almost starts to feel humorless, but that’s just because it’s missing Gibbons’ trademark humor which comes in later. The opener, “Lucky Card” reminds me of “Just Got Paid,” all funky blues rock. It may be my favorite. “She’s on Fire” is one of those, race to the finish line, fast, balls to the wall rocker. “More More More” has some of Gibbons’ most gravely vocals to date. “Shuffle Step & Slide” is just as advertised, a blues shuffle turned up to 10. It’s got a big, big riff. 

“Vagabond Man” is an affecting bluesy ballad, the guitar solo practically weeps. Make no mistake though, “Vagabond Man” is more ballad than blues. It’s not “Fool For Your Stockings.” “I Was A Highway” is a classic rock song with a chugging riff. It’s almost a sing along. I love the line, “You’d think I was a highway, the way she hit the road.” Gibbons is a deceptively clever songwriter and could always turn a phrase. The only track that really fell flat for me was “Hey Baby, Que Paso” which I think is a cover. “Spanish Fly” is a big riff rocker with almost metallic sounding drums and it is slightly plodding. The music – especially the guitars aren’t as loud as the usual ZZ Top or Gibbons record. They’re down in the mix and the vocals are up a little higher which also surprised me. 

Overall I really do like this record. Much like I said about Cheap Trick’s latest album, this is a solid, straight up rock record. It may not be Tres Hombres but its a damn fine guitar riff record. I’ll be honest, I probably liked The Big Bad Blues a little better but I’m an admitted blues fetishist. Everyone should check this album out. In 2021 its just nice to hear some great, guitar rock. 

Cheers! 

Lookback: The “Peak” of Bob Seger, The Rodney Dangerfield of Rock – 1976 to 1981, From ‘Live Bullet’ to ‘Nine Tonight (Live)’

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I thought for certain by now, almost midway through 2021, we’d be awash in a flood of new music. While 2020 was an awful year it was actually a pretty damn good year for music. Even so, I know there were a lot of bands who had stuff recorded and ready to release last year who ended up delaying since they couldn’t tour. I know Cheap Trick’s latest LP, In Another World was recorded and ready to go last year but not released until this spring. I know I described that album as merely “solid,” but it has really grown on me. I would have guessed that all of those great musicians out there, unable to tour, would turn to writing and recording new stuff. I had expected with all that “pent-up supply” of music we’d see new albums from beloved bands every week. And in truth we have seen some good music this year from Dirty Honey and the Black Keys, to name but a few. If I’m being honest however, I’ve been a little disappointed with the small number of new albums that have dropped this year. While things are rapidly improving out there I’m guessing that booking a tour right now might be slightly premature, a word I studiously try to avoid. And without being able to tour – which is where the real money is anymore – I’m sure that bands are waiting until the latter half of 2021 to put out the new stuff. At least there’s been some amazing archival stuff this year from the Black Crowes, Neil Young and CSNY.

While I’ve been fairly immersed lately in Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 2, CSNY’s great Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary, and frankly a lot of blues, with the small amount of new music coming out I do what I’ve always done… I’ve wandered back through my music collection to stuff I haven’t heard in a while. You can only research new stuff for so long before you have to return to the music that turned you onto rock and roll in the first place. For some reason this week I found myself obsessively (the only way I know how to do anything) listening to a guy who I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, Bob Seger.  I’m from Kansas City, the center of the country in the glorious midwest. In the late 70s, we kind of knew who Springsteen was, especially after The River. We kind of dug Tom Petty after Damn the Torpedoes. But in the midwest, Bob Seger was King. Everybody loved Bob Seger. I’m surprised the guy’s face wasn’t on our currency back then. He could sell out two nights at Kemper Arena in under an hour. They say that your musical tastes are ingrained during your formative, high school years. There was no one bigger during that time of my life than Bob Seger. The first Seger album I ever owned was a gift from my Sainted Grandmother (on my mother’s side) who knew I’d gotten into music. She bought Stranger In Town for me because she felt Seger “had nice eyes.” I loved the tune “Still The Same.”

While Seger was huge back then, for some reason he seems to have fallen out of favor. Most people only seem to know him from his greatest hits. I’m not sure the guy really ever got the respect he deserved. He’s like the Rodney Dangerfield of rock n roll, “I can’t get no respect…” It took until 2004 for the guy to be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame despite being eligible for it years before that. He said Detroit radio and gads, Kid Rock helped spearhead his induction. Seger is from the midwest and most of the rock intelligentsia are on the East Coast which might explain why Seger’s name isn’t uttered with the same whispered reverence as Springsteen. I like what Dylan said about Springsteen/Seger on his Theme Time Radio Show, “Some say Bob Seger is a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen. I like to think of Springsteen as a rich man’s Seger.” Seger has a lot in common with CCR… meat and potatoes rock n roll. “Maybe not the coolest band but certainly the best,” as Springsteen said of them. Seger’s rock n roll was simple, straight-forward, barrel house rock, based on a Chuck Berry ethos. When he rocked he was amazing. When he did the acoustic ballad stuff, well, yes, he was still amazing. Who doesn’t know and can sing along with “Mainstreet,” or “Fire Down Below” with equal gusto.

When I was trying to frame this article on Seger, I began to ponder what his “peak” period would be. I don’t think there is a musician with worse luck than Seger. He always struggled with decent studio production. Once, when I was in college with nothing better to do, I went to the library to do some rock n roll spelunking. I was surprised to learn that Seger is the exact same age as Pete Townshend. Pete and the Who’s road to fame and fortune was clearly a lot shorter than Bob’s. I decided to focus on what I consider to be Seger’s commercial peak. The albums that came out between his two landmark live albums. Those are likely the albums everybody is familiar with, which is actually too bad. Because out of Seger’s first 7 or 8 albums I’d say over half are classics. Unfortunately you can’t buy or stream any of his early LPs save for 1969’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man and 1975’s Beautiful Loser. I have mused in these pages before about who is holding his early stuff hostage. Jack White, another Detroit native, has even offered to go in and remaster Seger’s early LPs but Seger turned him down. I blame his longtime manager, Punch. Although Punch just passed away, sadly… but maybe this means new management might get this essential rock n roll released.

That lack of availability of a lot of Seger’s early music is what led me to pare this post down to that albums that are considered his “commercial peak.” Ideally, I’d be telling you that around the time Seger did his all covers LP, Smokin’ O.P.s he started to hit his stride. I’ve already posted about Smokin’ O.P.s in the best albums featuring all cover tunes…His early stuff, if available is all worthy of being considered a part of his peak but alas it’s not out there. Back In ’72 (recorded in ’72, released ’73) is a  lost masterpiece and if you ever see a copy in a used vinyl shop, grab it up. You can’t find this thing. The original version of “Turn the Page,” So I Wrote You a Song,” and “Rosalie” later covered by Thin Lizzy are all on this album. He covers Van Morrison (“I’ve Been Workin'”), and the Allman Brothers (“Midnight Rider”) to stunning effect. Seger always had a uncanny ability to “smoke other people’s songs”… Seven, his creatively titled seventh album doesn’t have big hits but is my all time favorite Seger album. “Get Out of Denver” from that album is the best Chuck Berry inspired number that Chuck didn’t do himself. Seven is the LP that saw the debut of the Silver Bullet Band. And finally, Beautiful Loser is damn close to perfect. Since none of these records (save the last one) are readily available, I’m sticking to my premise and merely recommending Seger’s “commercial peak” LPs, from his first live LP Live Bullet (an LP that made our best Live LPs list), to his second live LP, Nine Tonight. These are the albums that every rock n roll fan should own.

Live Bullet, 1976

After my grandmother gave me Stranger In Town, which I realize isn’t the coolest origin story, this was the second Seger album I purchased which was quite a financial outlay in junior high. This landmark live LP was largely ignored when it first came out but finally began to sell and get airplay after Night Moves broke Seger. Recorded at Detroit’s historic Cobo Hall this is the sound of the world’s most overachieving bar band, the Silver Bullet Band, on perhaps their best night. Twelve of the fourteen tracks are from the LPs mentioned in the paragraph above. This plays like an early Seger greatest hits (that weren’t hits) album. They say Seger could play Cobo Hall in Detroit and drive to the nearest city, Chicago, Des Moines or Kansas City and couldn’t sell out a theater. “Beautiful Loser/Travelin’ Man,” “Turn the Page,” and “Katmandu” were all staples of Kansas City rock n roll radio. But if you ask me, the opening track, “Nutbush City,” an Ike & Tina Turner track should have been a hit…

Night Moves, 1976

I heard Seger say in a radio interview that the title track of this LP, the one that finally broke him nationally, was somewhat inspired by Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” It’s an epic track. I was a pre-teen when this track came out but I still got goosebumps and could relate to the line, “woke last night to the sound of thunder, how far off I sat and wondered… started humming a song from 1962…ain’t it funny how the night moves?” There isn’t a bad song on this album. OK, maybe “Sunburst” is a little weak. Other than that, this is all killer, no filler. While the LP is billed to the Silver Bullet Band, half the album was recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – a habit that Seger had begun when recording Back In ’72, recording select tracks with his backing band and select tracks at Muscle Shoals. Tracks many casual fans will recognize from his greatest hits albums are here: “Fire Down Below,” “Mainstreet,” and “Rock N Roll Never Forgets.” But the deeper tracks are some of his best, like “Come To Poppa” a line that never worked for me… “Sunspot Baby,” and the rocker “Mary Lou.” This is close to midwest rock n roll heaven as you’re gonna get folks.

Stranger In Town, 1978

This was the album where I got on the bandwagon. The track that drew me in, oddly, was “Still the Same.” It still makes me think of a fickle friend of mine from those days. “Hollywood Nights” has some of the most propulsive drumming I’ve ever heard, especially when driving down the highway at 90 miles per hour… ahem. If I ever have a heart attack, put this on the stereo, turn it up loud and throw me on the biggest speaker in the room. It should revive me. “Feel Like A Number” is a tune I relate to even more now… although being a faceless member of the crowd in a high school of 1800 students certainly made it relatable. “Brave Strangers” was relatable on a completely different level. Again, a lot of these tracks, like “Old Time Rock n Roll” and the treacle “We’ve Got Tonight” are on the greatest hits but its the deeper tracks that I dig. “Ain’t Got No Money” is just a great rocker. “Till It Shines” boasts a great guitar solo from none other than Glen Frey.

Against The Wind, 1980

I will always have a soft spot for this album, as this is the first tour I actually got to see Seger. That’s why I’ve probably always been fond of his second live LP, Nine Tonight. That show was the famous night my mother blew out her knee doing “jazzercise” in the living room. The neighbor called 911… cops and ambulance showed up. I had a bottle of Jack Daniels in my pants and my friends almost drove past my house… I love this album but I have to admit, this is where I began to see the cracks in the Seger veneer. It has the sound of an album that was crafted to sound like his previous two. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fabulous album that everyone should hear. “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” and “Horizontal Bop” were great tunes but they felt like we’d heard them before. I did particularly like “Her Strut.” The first single was “Fire Lake” which asked the musical question, “who wants to go to Fire Lake?” sung by back up singers Don Henley/Timothy B. Schmit/Glenn Frey. With the “bronze beauties, lying in the sun,” I think we all would go to “Fire Lake” given the opportunity. The real question in that song was… why was Uncle Joe “afraid to cut the cake.” I mean, I get why he ran off to “Fire Lake” but I’m getting off topic here. “Long Twin Silver Line” is a great song about a train and made our train songs playlist. My favorite track here is the acoustic ender, “Shinin’ Brightly.” It was the perfect bright note to end the album on.

All of those albums are must haves for fans of rock n roll. I do like this second live LP, Nine Tonight, but I’m not sure it’s essential. It covers the three studio LPs above and only shares “Let It Rock” with Live Bullet which is a testament to how many great tunes were on those 3 albums. His next studio album, 1982’s The Distance was another solid album but I loathed the first single, “Shame On the Moon.” I loved “Even Now” and “Roll Me Away” but the cracks I started to see became more visible for me on this album. I’m still not sure what “House Behind A House” was about. But “Makin’ Thunderbirds” kicked ass… I will admit, after The Distance I really couldn’t connect with much of Seger’s more sporadic output until I Knew You WhenMaybe that’s why Seger has fallen out of favor… too many late-period, weak LPs. Although that doesn’t seem to hurt most bands these days.

I urge anyone who hasn’t gotten deeper than Seger’s Greatest Hits to check out these albums in full. There is a host of great music in these deep tracks. “Like a guest who stayed too long, its finally time to leave,” indeed.

Cheers!

Review: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Deja Vu (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)’

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“If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do, Don’t you?” – CSNY, “Deja Vu”

I didn’t start listening to rock n roll until I was in junior high in the late 70s. By the time I was in high school I considered myself an “aficionado” on the subject of rock n roll. However, I knew so little about the rock music I professed to love that if you’d have asked me about Crosby, Stills, Nash and/or Young, I’d have probably confused them with Seals & Croft. Even though I was into Dylan – from his rock n roll stuff to his folky stuff and yes, even his Christian stuff – I knew very little about the folk rock or country rock that had emanated out of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Neil Young was probably my “gateway drug” in terms of discovering CSNY. And to give credit where credit is due, it was my college roommate Drew who turned me onto Neil Young. Through Neil’s Decade greatest hits LP, I ventured into CSNY and picked up their landmark 1970 album Deja Vu. I loved the Young tune “Helpless” but once I picked up Deja Vu, I was stunned at how great it was and how great Stills, Nash and Crosby were. That of course led me to the first Crosby, Stills, Nash self-titled LP, aka “The Couch Album,” so nicknamed because on the cover the members are sitting on a couch on the porch of a dilapidated shack. CSN (and later Y) really changed rock n roll music. I read somewhere that rock n roll previous to CSNY was basically “the blues played louder and faster.” And yes, in high school that was the rock I was listening too… louder and faster, indeed.

The story of how Crosby, Stills and Nash came together is the thing of myth now. As the story goes, they all had left or been fired from their previous bands. They all met for the first time at a party at Cass Elliott’s place (Cass of the Mamas and Papas). They harmonized at the party and realized they were onto something and formed a band. That mythical story isn’t completely accurate, they didn’t actually “meet” at the party. It is true Graham Nash had quit the Hollies in 1968 and had moved to Laurel Canyon. Stills had been a member of the Buffalo Springfield who had finally disbanded after their third LP, Last Time Around. But there’s no way that Stills didn’t already know David Crosby who had been fired from the Byrds. The story goes that he was fired for presenting the song “Triad” about a menage a trois to the band. Actually Crosby had been at odds with his Byrds bandmates for a while. He was fond of rambling on about JFK assassination conspiracy theories on stage. He argued with the band about doing covers vs stuff they’d written because he wanted the publishing money. And worst of all – at a festival (Monterey I think) – he sat in with the Byrds’ arch rivals, yes, the Buffalo Springfield. “Triad” was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ergo, Stephen Stills and Crosby had already known each other. Regardless of inaccuracies in the myth, they did apparently meet Nash and sing together at Mama Cass’s party. And they were right, the vocal harmonies of these three voices was simply spellbinding.

They quickly formed a band, signed with Atlantic Records and picked up the rhythm section of Dallas Taylor on drums and Greg Reeves on bass. Their debut album, creatively titled Crosby, Stills and Nash was a monster hit. On the heels of that smash success Ahmet Ertegun (founder of Atlantic) supposedly suggested they add Neil Young as member because he liked the interplay of Young and Stills’ guitars from their time together in the Springfield. I can’t imagine a savvy record guy like Ertegun thinking it was a good idea to mess with the chemistry of a band who just had a smash hit. What I’ve read over the years was they were going to add a keyboard player and approached Steve Winwood to join, but he quickly declined. I’ve also heard they approached the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian who was a friend of the band and he declined as well. Perhaps that was the point Ertegun suggested Young. Again, after the success of Crosby, Stills & Nash, it’s hard for me to believe they thought they needed a 4th member…and yet, enter Neil Young.

The problem of course is I’m not sure Young was ever that committed to CSNY. They played one of their first shows at Woodstock and Young refused to be part of the film of that performance. He sat off to the side. Neil had been in and out of the Buffalo Springfield and I think he brought that “band commitment phobia” with him to CSNY. The band recorded their first album as a quartet in 1970, Deja Vu. Sadly, Covid delayed the release of the 50 year anniversary edition until this year. Young contributed his iconic “Helpless”  to Deja Vu but his second contribution was a track “Country Girl,” which was a combination of three songs he’d written for Buffalo Springfield, “Whiskey Boot Hill,” “Down Down Down” and “Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)” that Young put together in the style of a “suite” like he did with “Broken Arrow” or “Expecting to Fly” in the Springfield. It’s easy to suspect that Young did, like so many artists with a solo and band career are accused, keep his best stuff for his solo records. Even Stills said, years later, “Neil only gave us like, three songs (“Helpless,” “Country Girl” and “Ohio”). Even in the bonus material on this new Deja Vu: 50th Edition, there’s scant Neil Young.

I knew this Deja Vu 50th Anniversary Edition box was coming but I hesitated to jump on the bandwagon. I was very focused early this year on Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 2 instead. You never know if a retrospective release of an album is going to be Wildflowers or something like what the Who did with The Who Sell Out, just repackaging stuff you’ve heard before. I needn’t have worried. When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young finally went into the studio as a quartet to record the follow up to Crosby, Stills And Nash they supposedly spent 800 hours recording this album. The relationships in the band had become somewhat volatile and they recorded this in much the same way that the Beatles recorded The Beatles (The “White Album”), treating the other band members as back-up musicians. Whoever wrote the song played the track and brought in Young or Stills for guitar and the whole band for the harmony vocals. Based on the treasures in this box set, they could have put out a double album. Many of the songs included in this box ended up on the members solo LPs that followed: Crosby, If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971); Stills, Stephen Stills (70); Nash, Songs For Beginners (1972); and Neil Young, After The Gold Rush (1970). It’s remarkable to me that Stills and Young put out solo LPs mere months after Deja Vu arrived. These four songwriters were truly at a peak in 70-71.

Disc 1 of the 50th Anniversary box is the original album. The sound is amazing. It sounds, especially on some of the demos, like these guys are sitting in the room with you, or on the porch strumming. The original LP has one of Neil’s best songs, as mentioned, “Helpless.” I love that he later played that song with the Band at The Last Waltz concert. Nash has two of his greatest tracks, “Teach Your Children,” and “Our House,” the latter written about he and his then main squeeze Joni Mitchell’s place. Crosby has his usual trippy almost jazzy stuff with the title track and one of my all time favorite expressions of paranoia, “Almost Cut My Hair.” I love the line, “it increases my paranoia, like looking in my rearview mirror and seeing a police car.” I think we’ve all been there. Don’t drink and drive people. Stills does the yeoman’s work again, like on Crosby, Stills and Nash, when Nash gave him the nickname “Captain Many Hands” as Stills played all the instruments. Stills takes Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and rocks it out with Young. This was the guitar fireworks Ertegun was looking for. “4+20” is one of my all time favorite Stills tracks. Crosby and Nash famously refused to put backing vocals on it, they thought it was perfect as is and I couldn’t agree more. As a  young, foolishly heart-broken college kid “4+20” could have been my theme song… If you do anything after this post, at least pick up Deja Vu. From the opening “Carry On,” to the ending “Everybody I Love You” this is folk-rock, hippy masterpiece.

Disc 2 here is all demos. I think when I saw there were 18 demos, I was concerned. Sometimes demos can sound rough or unfinished. Not here. These are mostly all completely finished tunes. Some are demos of the tracks on Deja Vu but other songs are tracks that didn’t make the album. Those songs that didn’t make it could have almost been listed as outtakes vs demos. At the heart of their songs, CSNY have either an acoustic guitar or a piano. Yes, they adorn it with more guitar and harmony vocals but the heartbeat is a simple acoustic song. That’s what these demos are, the heartbeat of the finished tracks, the bones upon which the finished songs were based. There are so many great tracks on disc 2. The sole Young contribution is here, “Birds” demo’d with just he and Graham Nash on harmony vocal. It’s a spectacular song and I love this demo. “How Have You Been” credited to CSN is a John Sebastian cover… it could have made the album. Crosby’s “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” delivered here with just he and Nash is stripped to its elemental beauty. “So Begins The Task/Hold On Tight” which appeared on Stills’ LP with Manassas, is quintessential Stills. While many of these demos ended up on the members solo albums (which I posted about before), in more definitive versions but these are all great versions of the songs. Listening to these demos you have to wonder if the law firm style name, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, was an indication that this was a consortium of musicians looking to launch their own solo brands vs a real band. I always imagine a commercial that goes, “Been busted with a dime bag, call the law firm of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young,” but I’m getting off track here. Over the course of 18 tracks you get the feel for the recording sessions for Deja Vu and it helps frame the entire album. A must-hear experience for fans.

The third disc is my evidence that this could have been a double album. It consists of “outtakes.” A demo is an early version of a song. An outtake is a fully completed song that didn’t make the album. Many outtakes end up being B-sides on singles. Or, they used to back in the days when singles were released on vinyl. The outtakes are dominated by Stills tracks. Stills seems to be the most dedicated member of CSNY to the band ethos. “Ivory Tower” and my favorite “30 Dollar Fine” would have made fine additions to a double LP version of Deja Vu. Crosby’s “Laughing,” here stripped down almost matches the version on If I Could Only Remember My Name. “The Lee Shore” which CSNY did live but I don’t think ever released in a studio version, sounds great here. I will say Nash’s “Horses In A Rainstorm” is a bit slight but it is a nice pop tune. Theres so much great material on Disc 3 it’s no wonder that these guys continued to come back to these songs for solo releases down the road. This disc of outtakes is really where the gold is found on this box, even for a casual fan. They wrote the songs that would last their whole careers in those 800 hours.

The final disc, disc 4, is probably the slightest of the four, at least at first glance. It’s “early versions” or “alternative versions” of almost every track on the original album, in the same order. The original album is clearly the definitive version, although I’ll admit, I found some interesting things on disc 4. The version of “Helpless” here has some harmonica, omitted from the original. I think this version was on Neil’s Archives Vol 1. The version of “Almost Cut My Hair” is a sloppy, 10-minute guitar jam. It’s like hearing CSNY drunk in a bar at midnight. I understand why they couldn’t use this version but man is it a great jam. I also really dug the version of “Know You Got To Run” that concludes this box.

I was simply overwhelmed by how great this box set commemorating the 50th anniversary of Deja Vu turned out to be. I highly recommend this album. I’ve been simply lost in this thing for the last two weeks. I wake up every morning with a song in my head. Since I got this box I wake up with “Carry On” or “Our House” or some other track here in  my head. These vocal harmonies and infectious melodies just bore into your ear and straight into your brain. Any artist who is looking to do a retrospective around a classic album should use this LP as a blue print. Of course, I understand most artists wouldn’t have 4 songwriters at their zenith contributing this much bonus material. But there in lies the majesty of CSNY.

Turn this one up loud and get your hippy groove on. And if you’re reading this and thinking about getting your hair cut… don’t do it man! Let your “freak flag fly.” Cheers!

Review: The Black Keys’ LP of Blues Covers, ‘Delta Kream’ – Goin’ Down South To The Mississippi Hill Country

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Despite the heavy influence of the blues on just about every band I was into through college – the Stones, Zeppelin, Clapton, Aerosmith, etc – it wasn’t until after college when I was sent into corporate exile in the lonely state of Arkansas that I actually saw my first blues band in an actual blues club. Don’t be confused, it wasn’t in Arkansas that I saw my first blues band. Every week I spent in Arkansas I was usually figuring out how to get out of Arkansas by the weekend. Early in my southern desolation a group of friends of mine were convening in Chicago for various, nefarious reasons. It was my sainted mother who said to me, in regards to actually flying to Chicago to join them which I was hesitating on, “Buy the ticket son, enjoy your life.” On the appointed weekend I drove from Ft. Smith to Tulsa, the closest functioning airport, and flew to Chicago. It was like getting a three day furlough.

By the time the wheels touched down in Chicago and I made it to my friend’s waiting car, someone had thrust a beer into my hand. I knew this was indeed going to be a great weekend. Before I knew it, I was down on Halsted standing in front of the legendary Kingston Mines. I seem to recall not being able to get in and so we went across the street to the B.L.U.E.S. bar… It was there that I saw Magic Slim and the Teardrops, my first blues band. After that performance, my musical universe made a lot more sense. I spent a lot of time after returning to KC hanging in blues clubs like the Grand Emporium, alas now defunct. One of my first dates with the Rock Chick I took her to B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ, an old school roadhouse. I can still remember watching her swaying to the blues music on her barstool with a half-eaten rib in her hand. I was…mesmerized. 

Despite my love of the blues I had no idea when I posted my rockers playing the blues playlist a few weeks ago what a huge part of 2021 the blues were going to be. That post grew out of another post I’d done about old school cassette mix tapes not any preternatural sense the blues were going to be a big part of spring. But before I knew it Mick Fleetwood released the soundtrack to his blues jam in honor of Peter Green. And now, the Black Keys have released an entire album of blues covers. A blues album from those guys totally make sense. Like the White Stripes they’ve always had that bluesy sound to go along with the garage rock swagger. It’s often that you hear a band do a cover song, but an entire cover album isn’t as common as you think…but that’s another post. 

I got into the Black Keys on their third LP, Rubber Factory. For some reason that LP just didn’t click with me. Months later though, the Rock Chick discovered it and it went into high rotation for her. After hearing it a few times I realized I’d missed something on my initial listens. She not only picked up Attack & Release she went all the way back to their debut LP, The Big Come Up. Since then I’ve had an odd relationship with the Keys. I seem to like every other LP they put out. Rubber Factory, yes. Magic Potion, no (although in their defense I’m not sure I gave that one a thorough enough listen), Attack & Release, yes. It wasn’t until this week, in anticipation of the new blues LP, Delta Kream that I picked up Brothers. They had quite a run there with Attack & Release, Brothers, and El Camino. They’ve branched out from their early garage-rock bluesy roots but they always return to them eventually and that’s the stuff I like the best. 

Delta Kream is not the first time the Black Keys have done a strictly blues thing. They did an EP in honor legendary Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough, Chulahoma. The Keys also covered Kimbrough’s “Do The Rump” on their debut. The influence is definitely ingrained in their music. They’ve stated that Delta Kream is an album to honor Hill Country Blues and the musicians who played it – Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Missippi Fred McDowell, to name but a few. Hill Country blues generally refers to a type/style of blues played in the northern part of Mississippi near the Tennessee border. It has a “strong emphasis on the rhythm and percussion and a heavy emphasis on groove.” I just love that description from Wikipedia…I had to quote it verbatim. Hill Country blues has also been described as “hypnotic boogie.” It’s like cool bluesy trance music. With Patrick Carney on drums, he’s tailor-made for Hill Country Blues. 

The Keys convened shortly after their tour for their last LP, the superb “Let’s Rock.” The chemistry between singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney is so strong that they entered the studio and recorded this album in 2 days… approximately 10 hours. There was apparently no plan or rehearsal, they just set up and eyeball to eyeball played the blues. They’re like me and my friend Drew, it can be 10 years since we last spoke but when we see each other it’s like it was just yesterday… I think we all have friends like that. To augment their rootsy two-piece sound they rounded out their sound on this LP by bringing in Eric Deaton who was R.L. Burnside’s bassist and Junior Kimbrough’s sideman Kenny Brown on exquisite slide guitar. You can’t get more authentic blues sound than bringing those guys in. To emphasize the percussion, so important in the Hill Country blues they also added Sam Bacco on percussion. Brown was a critical add as his and Auerbach’s guitar snake around each other like Clapton and Duane Allman did on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. 

Knowing my proclivity for the blues, it’s no secret that I love this LP. I listened to it all day yesterday and last night on the headphones after the Rock Chick was asleep. This is the kind of music that just seeps into your pores. I can feel dirt on my hands when I hear this stuff. The first track on the LP which was coincidentally the first single is “Crawling King Snake” which I first heard the Doors do on L.A. Woman. It’s a track they played early on but Morrison couldn’t convince the band to include it on their debut. It was previously made famous by none other than the legendary John Lee Hooker. I love what the Keys do here with it – they cleave pretty tightly to the Junior Kimbrough version of the song – it’s swampy. “Louise” a Mississippi Fred McDowell tune is next up and I’ll just quote the Rock Chick when she first heard it last night, “That’s a great tune.” Indeed. 

“Poor Boy A Long Way From Home” is another favorite… it’s been done by several artists but I really dig this version. It’ll put a hitch in your giddy-up as a friend of mine used to say. These guys make these tunes sound fresh and new and somehow ancient at the same time. I feel like I’m getting wisdom when I listen to old blues tunes. “Stay All Night” which I seem to remember asking the Rock Chick after seeing her eat ribs and groove to the blues, is a slow burner of a tune. When you think about the blues, this is the type of music  you think of. “Going Down South,” which helped me name this post is a bit of a twist as Auerbach sings in a high falsetto. It’s a nice change of pace. “Coal Black Mattie” a Ranie Burnette track is another stand out. It just jumps up and grabs you with a thick riff, insistent drumming and stabs of slide guitar. I like to imagine I’m in a roadhouse down at the crossroads, washing down the dirt from a hard day working with a cold, affordable beer when I hear this stuff. 

There are so many great tunes here – and most of these blues tunes are ones I hadn’t heard before, which was a surprise. “Sad, Lonely Nights,” and “Walk With Me” are tracks I’d never heard covered. I used to think there were maybe twelve blues tunes and artists just passed those around. Obviously, that was wrong. There are some who will probably criticize the Keys for being too reverent and clinging too closely to the original versions of these songs, although I think in most cases they make these tunes their own. I remember Clapton’s great blues LP From The Cradle being criticized for not taking enough creative license with the songs. I feel like that’s hollow criticism. If you’ve got the chops to get up and make me feel something, I’m good with that. In the case of the Black Keys they’re exposing me to blues music and artists I would have otherwise not known and that is the greatest support you can show other artists, especially bluesmen. I know I immediately turned to Junior Kimbrough’s catalog to check that cat out. I will likely continue spelunking into Hill Country blues having heard this LP. 

I highly recommend Delta Kream. This is a swampy, bluesy treat of an album. When the Black Keys are on their rootsy game they can literally compete with any band on the planet. It’s just so fantastic to hear this kind of blues music still being recorded in 2021. I’ve always feared it’s going to be like what Elwood Blues once said, “some day the music known as the blues will only be available in the classical music section of your local library.” With albums like this one, that day looks like it’s been pushed a little further down the road. Thank God. 

Cheers!