LP Review: Van Morrison Returns (Already) With the Bluesy Jazz of ‘The Prophet Speaks’

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“When the prophet speaks, you’ve got to listen” – Van Morrison “The Prophet Speaks”

I never dreamed, when I posted my thoughts in September of 2016 on Van Morrison’s brilliant late-period album Keep Me Singing, that it was going to be the beginning of one of the most prolific periods of his career. His previous album of all new material had come in 2012, four years prior (Born to Sing: No Plan B). The guy has been really busy since then. Since Keep Me Singing, he’s released four albums in the span of 15 months. This prolific period began with the exceptional Roll With the Punches, which I described as a laid-back blues party. Van had some friends jamming with him on that album, which included Jeff Beck on guitar, an inspired choice. He went on to release Versatile (a jazz and standards heavy record) three months after Roll With the Punches. He then recorded the jazzy You’re Driving Me Crazy with the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet last April. Now he’s already back with a new album, The Prophet Speaks, a mere 8 months later. He’s on a 2 album/year pace… Back in the sixties the record companies were always pressing their artists for new product. The feeling back then was you had to stay in front of the public with new stuff… The Beatles and Stones, early in their careers, put out 2 albums/year. These days, this kind of pace/output is unheard of.

As long as Van keeps putting out quality albums like The Prophet Speaks, I say, keep them coming. Van has always been a prolific songwriter, but I believe one of the reasons he’s been able to put out albums every few months is that since Roll With the Punches his records have been heavy on covers. For Van, who can literally sing anything – folk, blues jazz, Irish, soul, rock and roll – doing covers isn’t a bad thing. Van may not be the singer he was in his 20s, like Geddy Lee or Robert Plant these days he’s singing more from his diaphragm than shredding his vocal cords, he can still sing with nuance and great feeling. He’s also got spectacular taste in material, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the reasons I loved Roll With the Punches was that it was deeply rooted in the blues. As anyone who have read this blog for any time knows, everything we love at B&V springs from the blues. I will admit, I shied away from Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy as they were more jazz leaning than I’m typically drawn too. For years I felt I wasn’t smart enough for Jazz. It’s very cerebral music. Last year I went to a ClassicAlbumSunday event (an afternoon featuring a certain album, curated by experts) and heard John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I’m still not smart enough for jazz, but that album blew my mind. The curator of that afternoon explained a lot about jazz and at least now I can groove on wonderful saxophone driven music that was here-to-fore a mystery to me. Still, Van’s Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy just didn’t hit me the way Roll With the Punches did.

With The Prophet Speaks, we find Van recording with the same crew as You’re Driving Me Crazy, the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet. Joey plays keyboards (most notably organ) and horns. He’s accompanied by Michael Ode on drums, Dan Wilson on guitar and Troy Roberts on bass and saxophones. This is a big, brassy album with a lot of great organ fills. When I hear this music, it transports me back to the old days when the Plaza III had a jazz club in the basement. If you knew somebody you could slip in after hours and listen to the old jazz guys, done with their paying gigs, jam until the wee hours. Nowadays to hear music like this, I grab the Rock Chick and head down to the Green Lady Lounge, order martinis and swing, baby. While this album is jazzy, it’s more like blues or R&B filtered through a jazz lens than straight up jazz. It’s very accessible music. As mentioned, this album swings. It is very apparent that Van, one of rock’s original curmudgeons, is having a blast here. You can hear him call out for sax solos, or moan, “Whoa” in reaction to a solo. He’s into this album and he should be, it’s great.

Van’s selection of artists to cover would make a great blues and soul record collection. He does a great, albeit less bluesy cover of “Dimples” by his old pal John Lee Hooker. He also does Willie Dixon’s “Love The Life I Live” made famous by Muddy Waters. While this version couldn’t sound more different from Gregg Allman’s recent cover of the same track, I still dig it. We also hear Van do “Worried Blues/Rollin’ And Tumblin'”… I think Van is the third artist to do that song this year (Billy Gibbons, Rod Stewart). Another highlight is the old traditional, “Teardrops” that finds Van and the band jamming in fine form. Van does a couple of great soul standards as well. “Gotta Get You Off Of My Mind” by Solomon Burke has a nice harmony vocal by Van’s daughter Shana Morrison. Another soul cover, and perhaps my favorite, is Sam Cooke’s “Laughin’ And Clownin’.” Sam’s influence is so broad, I need to write about him.

Beside all those great covers, Van blends in a number of originals. My favorites are probably “5 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time,” the story of a guy walking home at 5 a.m… and yes, it’s been a while since I’ve done that but we’ve all been there. Another great, bluesy tune is “Ain’t Gonna Moan No More.” It’s just a great Van Morrison song. Another great vamp is “Got To Get Where the Love Is,” Van’s first original on the album. The record ends with two songs more based in spirituality, “Spirit Will Provide” and title track. What would a Van album be without a little spirituality. 

If you’re a fan of Van’s, and admittedly, I am (I’m currently reading a book on the recording of Astral Weeks), you’ll love this album. Don’t let the word “jazz” in this post scare you away. This is a great, loose, groove record and I highly recommend it. To paraphrase, when Van sings, you’ve got to listen…

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

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Playlist & Reflections on Robert Johnson & His LP ‘King Of The Delta Blues Singers’

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As I’ve documented in these pages, my first album ever was The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls. After that, I was hooked on the power and the glory of rock and roll. I dove into the Stones catalog as deep as my allowance and lawn mowing money would take me. After that I started branching out. Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and Eric Clapton found their way into my record crate. Soon I was listening to Cream, AC/DC, Aerosmith and the Allman Brothers. I’m not a smart man, so it wasn’t until, believe it or not, I bought the Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues that it dawned on me that everything I like seemed to stem from this thing they call the blues. Say what you want about Belushi and Aykroyd’s vocals and stage schtick, the Blues Brothers boasted a crack band – Matt “Guitar Murphy, Steve Cropper (guitar), Duck Dunn (bass), Steve Jordan (drums and later Xpensive Wino), Paul Shaffer on keyboards and an all-star horn section. Before that album, I’m not sure I even knew what the blues were.

Hearing some blues, or a reasonable facsimile there of, made me realize all of the bands in my collection weren’t just rock and roll, they were blues rock. Even the term “rock and roll” came from the slang of the old blues guys… it was their euphemism for sex. AC/DC may have been harder than some of the other bands I listened to but the blues (or in their case blooze) was clearly there in songs like “The Jack,” or “Ride On.” Impassioned vocals over a great riff with a break for a soaring guitar solo was the blueprint. English rock stars had taken what the black blues legends of the Mississippi Delta had done and expanded on it. Although in many cases, they just stole the stuff the old blues cats had done, but that’s another post. It wasn’t until later that I began to explore the blues guys that had so heavily influenced the rock bands that followed them. I started seeking out Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker and of course, B.B. King. I foolishly thought those guys had invented the blues in the 40’s and 50’s. Ah, the misconceptions of youth. The blues have a much longer history.

The blues sprang out of the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta around the turn of the last century. Musicians from plantations in the Delta started playing the music we now know as the blues on acoustic guitars. They sang about every day troubles and tribulations, but mostly they sang thinly veiled songs about sex. Was it really a “Little Red Rooster” they were singing about? I think not… That music slowly moved up the river to Memphis. Eventually, after World War II, as black people moved up north looking for work, the blues followed and implanted itself in places like Chicago and Detroit. It took a while, but eventually the music the blues guys were making made it’s way to England where guys like the Stones, the Yardbirds, Alexis Koerner and Van Morrison snatched up blues 45s and formed bands. Those bands would incorporate blues and change rock and roll in America. The blues had taken a circuitous route home. It wasn’t until the folk music revival of the 60s that people started to seek out and appreciate some of the really early acoustic blues of the 20’s and 30’s. Blues and folk are more closely associated than people realize. I hear as much blues in Bob Dylan’s early work as I do Woody Guthrie. On his first LP Dylan did “In My Time Of Dying,” if you need proof.

It was during that folk/folk blues revival in the sixties when people began to discover the guy who is known as the Father of the Delta Blues, a man named Charley Patton. Charley is largely credited for being the first real blues star, if you will. Sadly he was long since dead by the 60s. Charley had passed the blues torch to greats like Bukka White and Son House. Son House was actually rediscovered in the sixties and returned to playing blues. It was one of Son House’s disciples that was rediscovered around that same time… a man named Robert Johnson who became King of all those early blues guys. Basically a footnote in the history of blues up to then, it wasn’t until 1961’s King of the Delta Blues Singers came out, a compilation of roughly half his recorded material that Johnson finally got the fame and accolades he’d missed out on in his short life. His legend grew quickly… soon there were stories about Johnson’s making a deal with the Devil down at the crossroads to obtain his mastery over the guitar. Those rumors mostly stem from stuff Son House said but it stuck…

Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911 (approximately). When he was but a youngster he met Son House who remembered him as an OK harmonica player and singer and a bad guitarist. Johnson moved from Robinsville, MS to Martinsville, MS where he studied guitar with Ike Zimmerman who supposedly got his gift with the guitar by hanging around graveyards…He most likely played there because no one was around, not to meet Satan. The next time Son House saw Johnson he was playing guitar like a master. It had been two years since he’d seen Johnson but House always recalled that it had taken such a short time for Johnson to improve so vastly that the Devil had to be involved… perhaps Johnson had indeed gone down to the crossroads and made that deal with the Devil, trading his soul for guitar mastery. A legend and myth were born.

I’m not a religious man. In the old days, in tough times I’d describe myself as being spiritual… there are no atheists in fox holes. As I’ve said before, “God makes me nervous when you get him indoors,” so I’ve always avoided organized religion… and well, unorganized religion for that matter. I’m sure the religious leaders of Robert Johnson’s time saw these guys traveling around, performing music, drinking booze and seducing women and immediately deemed it evil. No civilization has ever been comfortable with the effect really great music has on women (or men for that matter)… all that dancing and hair flying around, it’s like fucking standing up. Let’s remember Lucifer was the Angel most closely associated with music. I see a trend here. And let’s face it, even if you’re of the purest heart, having some puritan decry your music as evil probably helps make it irresistible to folks…forbidden fruit. How many rock bands have similar stories – Led Zeppelin (specifically Jimmy Page’s legendary interest in the occult) and even the Stones played that up (Their Satanic Majesty’s). Sabbath did pretty well financially pretending to be occultists and Satanic as well…

Whatever the explanation, supernatural or just that whole 10,000 hours of practice thing Malcolm Gladwell is so fond of, Johnson’s gift with the guitar was real. He’d left the life of a farm worker to become a traveling musician, which at the time was considered trading a normal life for that of the devil – traveling, drinking and of course women. He managed to record around 30 songs in hotel rooms in San Antonio and the back of a Dallas office. In the end, Robert Johnson was poisoned by a jealous girlfriend or perhaps a jealous boyfriend of one of his lady friends. He was 27… the first member of that horrible 27-Club. That would have been the end of his story, save for the early 60s folk/folk blues revival.

In 1961 Columbia records released the aforementioned compilation King of the Delta Blues Singers and suddenly Johnson’s myth took off. Bob Dylan is seen holding a copy of the album on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, which sealed Johnson’s hip factor. For whatever reason, I’ve been listening to King of the Delta Blues Singers a lot lately. I’ll admit 1990’s The Complete Recordings has probably supplanted it as the Robert Johnson album to have, but I still love Delta Blues Singers. The recordings are eighty years old, so they’re a bit primitive but Johnson’s music is so striking. His voice seems otherworldly. And yes, his guitar playing is masterful. His songwriting is top drawer as well. I consider Johnson one of the critical artists that everyone should experience.

In many ways, almost everyone has had some experience with Robert Johnson, so vast is his influence. He’s been covered by everyone from Cream to the Stones to Led Zeppelin and beyond. It was Brian Jones who introduced Robert Johnson’s music to Keith Richards who has been a lifelong fan. I mentioned the influence on Dylan prior. I don’t think there’s a bigger influence on Eric Clapton than Robert Johnson. I started thinking about all the Robert Johnson cover songs out there and I realized those songs would make a great playlist. I put together the following playlist in the same order as the tracks on King Of The Delta Blues Singers. But since there are so many other tracks by Johnson that have been covered, I added those additional songs to underscore how wide Johnson’s influence remains to this day. You may or may not have realized that these familiar songs were Robert Johnson, but hopefully this playlist will clarify this… my descriptions below.

  1. Cream, “Crossroads” – Clapton’s greatest cover of a Johnson tune. This may be Cream’s signature song in my mind.
  2. Foghat, “Terraplane Blues” – People forget how blues based Foghat were. This is maybe one of the earliest tracks to use a car as metaphor for sex.
  3. The Allman Brothers, “Come On In My Kitchen” – An authentic, acoustic take that makes me feel like I’m sitting on the front porch with Gregg belting this one.
  4. Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Walkin’ Blues” – Michael Bloomfield’s guitar is sublime.
  5. Eric Clapton, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” – Clapton has done almost all of the songs on this list and I like his take on this one.
  6. Bob Dylan, “32-20 Blues” – Dylan just slays this. I love it when he goes bluesy.
  7. Muddy Waters, “Kind Hearted Woman” – Johnson not only influenced rock n roll, he influenced the blues.
  8. Big Head Todd And the Monsters, “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” – Nobody was more surprised than I was that one-album wonder Big Head Todd had done an album of Johnson covers. I included this version to prove the reach of RJ’s music.
  9. Living Colour, “Preachin’ Blues” – These guys pour everything they’ve got into this tune.
  10. Johnny Winter, “When You Got a Good Friend” – A classic blues guy doing an even more classic blues tune. Johnny goes acoustic, very reverent of the original. You can tell Johnson’s a huge influence for Winter.
  11. Lucinda Williams, “Ramblin’ On My Mind” – Clapton did this with John Mayall way back when but I like Lucinda’s take too.
  12. John Mellencamp, “Stones In My Passway” – From Mellencamp’s overlooked blues album, Trouble No More.
  13. Led Zeppelin, “Traveling Riverside Blues” – Probably my favorite track here.
  14. John Hammond, “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” – Another faithful, acoustic blues track.
  15. Leon Redbone, “Me And The Devil Blues” – I thought Redbone was more of a novelty singer… this is actually a kick ass track. Redbone’s voice sounds almost as ancient as Johnson’s.
  16. Jimmy Wolf, “Hell Hound On My Trail” – Wolf is a blues guy I wasn’t familiar but this is a great take on this tune. It’s heavy blues.
  17. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “They’re Red Hot” – This is where the tracks I added beyond King of the Delta Blues Singers begin… Chili’s aren’t a blues band but it seems inevitable they’d do this track… I saw them improvise it live in Denver after a fan request once…
  18. The Rolling Stones, “Love In Vain” – The Stones at their bluesy best.
  19. Steve Miller Band, “Sweet Home Chicago” – People dig Miller’s 70s, spacey hits but he started as a blues guy. He returned to the blues later in his career and this one definitely worth checking out. I have to guiltily admit I like the Blues Brothers version as well… what can I say, it’s imprinted from my youth.
  20. ZZ Top, “Dust My Broom” – I had always thought this was Elmore James, but it’s pure Johnson.
  21. George Thorogood & The Destroyers, “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” – I always thought of George as a bit of a joke with all that “Bad To the Bone” stuff but he’s got the blues chops, especially with this great material.
  22. Cream, “Four Until Late” – From the bluesy, bluesy debut album.
  23. Peter Green, “Phonograph Blues” – Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker fame, doing a great solo take on RJ.
  24. Eric Clapton, “Little Queen of Spades” – Yes, I’m revisiting the same album as #5 but Clapton and Johnson have a symbiotic relationship…
  25. Johnny Lang, “Malted Milk” – The youngster on a track that Clapton did on his Unplugged album.
  26. The White Stripes, “Stop Breakin’ Down” – The Stripes doing one of my favorite RJ tracks… also done by the Stones on Sticky Fingers.

Listening to these tracks you’re probably already thinking, I didn’t know that was a Robert Johnson song! Take my advice and check out the originals. A haunting vocal that seems to come from the very soil of the Delta from which it sprang. “I went down to the crossroads, try to beg a ride…”

LP Review: Billy F Gibbons, ‘The Big Bad Blues’ – Blooze Rock As Greasy As A Bacon Sandwich On Wonder Bread!

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The blues have always been my Alpha and Omega… the beginning and the end. Even in the early days of my record collecting, when I didn’t know what the blues were, they were always in the background, driving my vinyl purchases. I started off, as I’ve often said, with the Stones LP Some Girls. Soon I was working my way backwards into their catalog and I realized early on I liked some of the slower tunes, with big guitar solos. I was finding my way to the roots of rock and roll… the blues. There’s a guy online whose link my brother sent me, who thinks that rock has died because it got too far away from the blues… who knows? Anyway, everything that came after that first Stones album, unwittingly, had it’s basis in the blues. I branched out to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. Pretty soon I picked up an album by that “Little Ol’ Band from Texas,” power-trio ZZ Top, Deguello. “Fool For Your Stockings” remains a favorite of mine. The guitar on that album is amazing. It’s Billy Gibbons, a man whose playing, none other than Jimi Hendrix said he admired.

From Deguello I plunged into the ZZ Top back catalog. There are so many great albums, but my favorites were Fandango! and of course, Tres Hombres. Those are essential listening for any fan of blues or rock or blues rock. I even liked Rio Grand Mud. As the 70s transitioned into the 80s, a lot of bands struggled to make the turn. I was surprised that ZZ Top was able to do so. El Loco was a solid transition album that brought that old blooze rock into the 80s with big anthems like “Party On the Patio,” and “Pearl Necklace.” But it was their smash-hit, aided by a series of videos on MTV, 1983’s Eliminator that broke ZZ Top into a world wide phenomenon. Every frat house and dive bar was blaring “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” I remember being on a dance floor at a wedding and there was a guy on crutches using one to air guitar to the latter song. Ah, youth.

I had that album on cassette, I’m embarrassed to say… In my college town, Manhattan, Kansas, the radio was so bad you had to have cassettes in the car to avoid Michael Jackson and Madonna. They were tough years. After Eliminator, I sort of got off the ZZ bandwagon. The synthesizers and gimmicky effects that Gibbons had used to make Eliminator sound cool in ’83 went a little overboard on ’85’s Afterburner. So much accursed drum machine I couldn’t even listen to it. I completely lost track of them after 1994’s Antenna, which actually had two of my favorite ZZ Top tracks, “Breakaway” and “Pincushion.” It wasn’t until the Rick Rubin produced comeback album, La Futura that I found my way back to ZZ Top. It got them back to that basic, bloozey sound they’d gotten away from. It’s great listening and I would say essential to any ZZ Top fan. It’s the type of album this blog was founded on…

Since then it seems Billy Gibbons has decided to leave behind the confines of the power-trio format and has gone solo. His first album Perfectamundo was steeped in Cuban and Latin rhythms and frankly, left me a little cold. It seemed like the patented Billy Gibbons’ sense of humor had gotten the best of him. I had heard he had another album coming out but I really hadn’t paid attention. I thought, based on the title it was a blues covers album, but I quickly realized that was wrong. I was not prepared for the smile that broke across my face the first time I heard The Big Bad Blues. I haven’t had this much fun listening to Billy Gibbons play guitar since side two of Fandango!

Billy is joined on The Big Bad Blues by Matt Sorum, of GnR and the Cult fame, on drums; Joe Hardy on bass; Austin Hanks on rhythm guitar; and most importantly James Harman on harmonica. I have to say this is as loose as I’ve heard Gibbons in years. This is the sound of a group of men in a small room, having a blast with their instruments. On first listen, I had flashbacks of walking into the old Grand Emporium, past the Amazing Grace BBQ stand, under the big picture of Belushi as Joliet Jake, to find the dance floor full and the joint hoppin’. This record has the feel of a great roadhouse on a Saturday night. This is bloozey music, as greasy as a bacon sandwich with too much mayo on wonder bread. I need a napkin to listen.

While this is not a blues cover album, there are 7 originals, Gibbons does do some old blues standards. Two of the tracks are associated with Muddy Waters. Gibbons crushes “Standing Around Crying.” It’s my favorite blues tune here. He also does “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” which, when compared to the version Rod Stewart just released on Blood Red Roses, it can illustrate to you what real blues is vs overproduced schlock. Gibbons also does two Bo Diddley tracks here – which is perfect. I’ve always thought that Bo Diddley was one of those great artists who bridged blues and early rock and roll, which is kind of what this album is about. “Bring It to Jermone” is the first Bo track and it’s got that Bo Diddley-beat and is probably the best of the two. “Crackin’ Up” is one of those odd tunes, it almost sounds reggae, and while not my favorite, it’s been covered by the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney so it has street cred. It ends the album here.

The originals here are all classic Gibbons. The opening track, “Missin’ Your Kissin'” sets the tone. It was written by Gilly Stillwater, Gibbons’ main squeeze. Actually she’s his wife, but I just feel like Billy  is the type of guy who would describe his wife as his main squeeze… it’s kind of a Telly Savalas thing. Anyway, from the first chord and Billy’s raspy “Hey” you know you’re in for a good bluesy rock time. Gibbons rapsy, growling vocals coupled with his hay-in-a-windstorm beard gives one the impression that Howlin Wolf and a hay bail had a child… Gibbons’ playing is loose and fierce on this record. What I like is that he has a foil in James Harman on harmonica. Often the first solo break in a track they throw it to Harman on harmonica and Gibbons follows on guitar. I love the way they play off each other. That dynamic fuels many of the tunes. I was really blown away by the harmonica on “Bring It To Jermone,” Harman is an amazing blues harp player.

“Second Line” is a great rock tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on Deguello. “That’s What She Said,” also with a great harmonica solo, also evokes the sound of old ZZ Top for me. “My Baby She Rocks” is a great, rockin’ Gibbons original. All of this music makes me want to order a Bulleit Rye and take my shoes off. “Mo’ Slower Blues” lives up to it’s title, but has an almost funky beat. “Hollywood 151” features some wonderful, intricate guitar work. Gibbons has rediscovered his blues roots, but in doing so, he’s also rediscovered that old ZZ Top sound as well. It’s all tied together.

This is simply, one of the best albums of the year. B&V highly recommends this good time of an album. This is rock n roll and blues that’ll put hair on your chest! Turn this one up loud and strap in for some chooglin’ music!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

 

 

Muddy Waters: 1977 – 1981, The Late Career, Johnny Winters’ Produced Records

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“Well the blues had a baby and they named the baby ‘Rock and Roll'” – Muddy Waters, “The Blues Had a Baby”

I was a fan of the blues before I even knew what the blues were. I can still remember in the movie The Jerk, when Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, is asked by his brother if he’d like to come out on the porch and sing the blues… Martin deadpans, “No, there’s just something about that music that depresses me.” That was my only impression of the blues. I grew up in the suburbs of a small, midwestern, American town and the blues were not something you heard on the radio. My parents weren’t exactly musical people and that didn’t help. So I really didn’t know anything about the blues except this vague impression that it was “downer” music. The only blues song I’d probably ever heard at that point was the amazing B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” and that’s a pretty sad song. I used to like to put that on mix tapes when I broke up with someone, but those records are sealed.

However, without even knowing it, I was already a fan of the blues. Every band I liked played blues-based music or as it was known, “blues rock.” My first love, the Rolling Stones, were basically a blues cover band for the first five years of their career and still play the blues today (LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle). Led Zeppelin’s music was steeped in the blues so much they were sued for copyright infringement. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Faces, Foghat, AC/DC, Humble Pie, the list goes on and on, were all either blues rock or at the very least performing blues covers. People think of the young Bob Dylan as a folkie, but I hear as much Robert Johnson in his early music as Woody Guthrie… I had no idea “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” was a blues cover… I thought it was just a Foghat song. Oh, the ignorance of youth… It wasn’t until I purchased, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, the Blues Brother’s live album, Briefcase Full of Blues that I realized the blues were more than just sad, acoustic based songs. The blues were powerful and joyful and simply amazing all at the same time. God bless John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. A lot of criticism was leveled at the Blues Brothers, but that was an amazing band – Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn and an amazing horn section… Sure Belushi was no Sam Cooke on vocals, but he was committed. I love it when he says, “I suggest you buy all the blues albums you can,” in between songs. Sage advice, indeed.

It’s easy I suppose, especially when you’re young, to hear a band and not realize they were influenced heavily by other artists, the artists that came before them. It’s easy to hear Van Morrison’s band Them doing their version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” (perhaps the definitive rock version of that song) and not realize how heavily influenced he was by Muddy Waters’ version. As a young kid I heard Cream’s version of “Rollin’ and Tumbling'” and thought it was their song. After hearing the Blues Brothers I began to explore the roots of all this rock and roll music I was listening to, and started reading liner notes and writing credits, and realized there was a world of blues artists I hadn’t realized existed. Searching and seeking out the blues was really the root of my life long obsession with musical spelunking.

There were names that my Rock Star heroes were dropping in interviews, the names of their heroes. There were the Three Kings – B.B., Freddie, and Albert. Albert Collins was another guy I heard a lot about. Then I discovered the legend of Robert Johnson, which is a whole other blog post. All of these men were Titans of the Blues. But there were others – names that conjured awe and fear all at the same time… Who was this Howlin Wolf person? That’s a pretty scary moniker… and then I heard that otherworldly voice. But the one name that always caught my ear, that made me feel we were talking about someone special, was Muddy… Muddy Waters. That name conjures up the very Delta where the blues sprang from. It was as if this Muddy Waters was the personification of the blues. His name was spoken of in such reverential tones you just knew he was important. I assumed, wrongly, that this was a person who had lived and sang the blues and died decades before I was born, like Robert Johnson. I didn’t even realize that Muddy was still alive when I was in high school while all of this musical spelunking was going on. Muddy didn’t pass until 1983. I didn’t even know it was Muddy’s version of “Mannish Boy” that was used so effectively in the movie Risky Business. “All I’m saying is, walk like a man…”

McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters was born in the Missisippi Delta. By the time he was in his teens he was playing guitar, harmonica and singing with the authority of a man much older. He was actually recorded by Alan Lomax on his famous recordings for the Library of Congress. Eventually, like the music of the blues itself, Muddy migrated north to Chicago. Muddy was one of the bedrock foundations of what was known as “Chicago Blues.” He played mostly acoustic blues on record, but in the clubs at night he had a full-on electric band. With Muddy and the legendary Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano and Little Walter on harmonica (or as it’s known in blues, the harp) Muddy’s band was probably the greatest blues outfit ever assembled. Muddy was the King of Chicago blues from the late 40’s through the mid-50s. I can close my eyes and see Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield hanging out in southside Chicago clubs hoping to get up and jam with Muddy…

While his fortunes may have waned by the dawn of the 60s, Muddy had toured England and in doing so turned-on a generation of white, English blues musicians from Steve Winwood and Van Morrison to Mick Jagger and Alexis Koerner to his brand of blues. His seminal live album, 1960s At Newport spurred on a whole new wave of popularity and boosted Muddy’s career. That was the first album of Muddy’s I ever heard and man… that voice gave me chills. He’s probably my favorite blues singer. The deep resonance of that voice rumbling around that broad chest… Simply amazing. Muddy’s career continued in a series of ebbs and flows well into the 70s. It was in the latter half of the 70s that a huge fan and follower of Muddy’s, blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winters, approached Muddy to produce an album for him…Muddy’s career had ebbed a bit at that point… he’d just signed a new contract with Blue Sky Records… I don’t think anybody saw anything coming as forceful and joyful as Hard Again. 

BourbonAndVinyl has always attempted to shed light on the latter careers of great artists like Bob Dylan or David Bowie. New music by older artists has always been my focus. When Johnny Winters entered the picture for Muddy Waters, and produced three studio albums (and one live album, but I’m only focusing on the studio stuff here), Muddy entered a golden, twilight period in his career. It was certainly one of my favorite periods in Muddy’s career. I could write and write and write about Muddy’s whole, long and storied history, but in the B&V tradition, I’m just focusing today on the Blue Sky Records, Johnny Winters period. If you’re a fan of anybody from Hendrix, who just released a cover of “Mannish Boy” (Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’) to Greta Van Fleet, the music of Muddy Waters is the root of that music. I urge everyone to seek out the three Johnny Winters’ produced albums of Muddy’s post haste…

Hard Again, 1977

The first thing you hear belting out of the speakers on this record is Muddy’s voice as he begins “Mannish Boy.” “Oooooh, yeah, everything, everything gonna be alright this morning…” It’s one of the iconic moments in the blues. This music is loud, brash and so, well, joyful. You can tell everybody involved is having a great time, when you hear the band shout back at Muddy in the call and response of the song. Muddy and Johnny are on guitar along with Bob Margolin. Legends Pine Top Perkins is on piano and James Cotton on the harp (alas Little Walter had passed years prior). Willie “Big Eyes” Smith is pounding the skins and Charles Calmege is on bass. This is big, old-school Chicago blues. There is not a bad moment here. Muddy revisits some of his older, iconic tracks here, like “Mannish Boy,” and also “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (A rare acoustic blues moment here) and “I Want To Be Loved.” They also do some new stuff, the epic “Bus Driver” and “Deep Down In Florida.” This is simply one of the greatest blues albums of all time. It sounds like these guys cut the whole thing live in the studio. Heralded as a “comeback” it proved Muddy still had the power and glory.

I’m Ready, 1978

By happenstance, Muddy was reunited on this album by a member of his classic, late 40s/early 50s band, Jimmy Rogers on guitar. Hard Again gets all the attention, but I almost like I’m Ready better. The way Muddy and Jimmy weave together their guitars, much like Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood do, is mesmerizing. Margolin jumped over to bass. You throw in Johnny Winters on guitar and it’s a pretty amazing trio of axes. The title track opens things up and it’s a great version of a Muddy classic. Muddy not only wrote his own stuff, but he sang a bunch of Willie Dixon’s songs with the great “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” included here in a rousing version. “33 Years” is another stand out blues track. That good time, happy vibe continued over from the first album. These guys had found blues gold and they kept it rolling on this second album of the trio. Another must have blues album from Muddy.

King Bee, 1981

After a live album (which is definitely worth checking out), the team reconvened in the studio for the third and alas the final installment of this trio of superb records. By this time, Muddy’s health had begin to fail and he was forced more often than not to cancel his live performances. His great touring band made most their money from concerts… if a show was canceled, they didn’t get paid. This caused a schism between Muddy and his manager and the rest of the band. The big party sound of the first two albums is gone and Muddy sounds like he’s settled into a sadder, bluesier mood here. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just a farewell vibe. They only managed to bang out part of the album and had to augment it with outtakes from the Hard Again sessions. It’s too bad that money always seems to get in the way. I still think this record is essential listening. The title track is still great and I love this version of “Champagne and Reefer,” later covered by Buddy Guy and the Stones, live. Muddy’s favorite drink was champagne, why not sing about it, I mean, there are worse pastimes. On the extended version, the last track, “Clouds In My Heart” was the perfect capper on what was an amazing three record run.

For me, these three albums are a great place to start your Muddy Waters collection. For his early work, a nice place to start is the excellent Muddy Waters: The Anthology which collects over 50 of Muddy’s earliest recordings from 1945 to 1953. You can start at the beginning with Anthology or start at the end with the Johnny Winters’ produced albums, but I urge all of you to start somewhere on adding Muddy Waters to your collection.

Listen to these records and you know, deep down, “that everything, everything, everything gonna be alright this morning…”

 

 

 

 

 

LP Review: Van Morrison, ‘Roll With The Punches,’ A Laid-Back Blues Party

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In the 60s and even into the 70’s, record companies pushed artists constantly for new material, or as the record companies called it, new “product.” Early on, I think the Beatles put out three albums in one year. Apparently the record companies weren’t familiar with the concept of burn out, but when has any faceless corporation cared about burn out. By the 70s the pace had slowed a little bit… artists were only expected to put out an album a year. I can remember the Faces even saying, “thank you and we’ll see you next year” or something to that effect in the liner notes to one album. But that was the formula, put out an album, tour and do it again next year. Wash, rinse, repeat. When Springsteen took three years  between ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’ due to legal issues it was a big deal. That kind of gap between records, which is fairly standard now, was considered career suicide. The term saturation apparently hadn’t been discovered yet.

Nowadays artists can take up to five years between albums and nobody bats an eye. U2 usually  takes about five years between records… Although I’ve noticed Springsteen, a notorious perfectionist, is only taking about two to three years between records lately…making up for lost time, no doubt. Metallica took eight years between ‘Death Magnetic’ and ‘Hardwired.’ I was surprised earlier this year when Cheap Trick, of all people, bucked that trend and returned only a year after 2016’s ‘Bang, Crazy, Zoom…Hello’ with this year’s exceptional ‘We’re All Alright.’ If I was surprised that Cheap Trick put out albums in consecutive years in the 2010s, imagine my downright shock that Van Morrison, only one year after his fabulous 2016 album, ‘Keep Me Singing’ (reviewed on B&V: LP Review: Van Morrison, “Keep Me Singing” Rock’s Curmudgeon’s Understated, Rootsy Return) has returned with this year’s ‘Roll With the Punches.’ This is starting to feel like the 70s and I mean that in a good way, not the 70s disco-leisure suit bad way… At least this time around it’s the artists who are choosing to put the music out so quickly and not the dictates of some faceless record company.

When I started to dig into my research on ‘Roll With The Punches’ I quickly discovered this was predominantly a cover album of old blues and soul tunes by Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke and Doc Pomus to name a few. That might explain why he was able to release this album so quickly after ‘Keep Me Singing,’ not a lot of that pesky songwriting to do. Ten of the records 15 tracks are cover songs. Of the ten covers songs, Van has sung “Bring It On Home” before, released on his epic live LP, ‘It’s Too Late To Stop Now’ and he covered “Lonely Avenue” on ‘Too Long In Exile.’ Of the five original tracks, two are songs he’s done in some form before: “Ordinary People” was included on the superb archival release ‘Philospher’s Stone’ and a slightly different version of “Fame” came out on the great record, ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture.’ Van doing songs where he complains about being famous are wearing a little thin, like Ozzy always doing the obligatory “I’m Still Crazy” tune on every album. We get it, you hate being famous. I will say, all of the five originals fit seamlessly with the old blues tunes. The title track could have been a Muddy Waters tune, it sounds timeless. The only original I would say is an exception to the sound is the beautiful transcendent song, “Transformation.” It’s a classic, soaring Van song, it just seems a tad out of place amongst all this other blues and soul music.

When most people think of Van, they think of his 70’s “golden” era when he released masterpiece after masterpiece. ‘Astral Weeks’ is singularly brilliant. There’s never been anything before or since that comes close to that record. He followed that up with ‘Moondance’ and ‘His Band And The Street Choir.’ Van could do no wrong in those days. He was a wild-eyed Celtic soul man. He seemed like an Irish mystic who had wandered out of the mist with transcendent truth and “Moonshine Whiskey” on his lips. He’s gone through many phases and released a ton of music since those heady days… but much like Dylan, many people want to compare his current work to that wonderful purple patch in the 70s. I loved that part of Van’s career, but I was also a fan of his earlier, pre-solo work, with Them. While Them was basically just Van surrounded by an ever changing cast of other musicians, they were a gritty blues and soul band. It was then that Van penned his garage band classic, “Gloria,” covered by so many other artists: Patti Smith and perhaps definitively by Jimi Hendrix, just to name two. Them’s version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” was the first version of that tune I ever heard and it remains my favorite version. So when I heard that Van was doing a blues album, I couldn’t help but think maybe we’d hear some of that fire and brimstone blues of his earliest Them days, much like what the Stones did on ‘Blue And Lonesome.’ And while this isn’t quite the Van of his 20’s when he was in Them, (and who of us are like we were in our 20s) this is pretty kick ass blues.

One thing I can say about ‘Roll With the Punches’ is that Van sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. He’s clearly completely engaged. Part of that might be that he invited a bunch of friends into the studio with him. It’s like Van decided to throw a laid-back blues party. He brought in Georgie Fame (keyboards/vocals) who has been his band’s musical director for a while.  He also brought in Paul Jones, the original lead singer in Manfred Mann and harmonica player extraordinaire. He also brings in Chris Farlowe to duet on the “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue” medley, which is an inspired choice – Farlowe’s first hit in the sixties was “Stormy Monday.” Pianist Jason Rebello also contributes to a few of the tunes. Most importantly, Van Morrison brought in Jeff Beck to play guitar. A few years ago, Rod Stewart tried to lure Beck back into the studio to do a blues album but Jeff quit early on in the process… he said he didn’t want to play the kind of music Rod wanted to play. And here he is playing his ass off on this blues album. I guess when Van The Man calls, you gotta answer. Beck’s guitar fuels a lot of these tunes. His guitar solo in “Bring It On Home To Me” may be the high point of the record. I love that before the solo, Van says, “alright Jeff…” “Bring It On Home” is probably the greatest moment on this album. Sam Cooke inspired so many singers from Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin to Rod Stewart and Van himself.

I really like this album, but in the interest of full-disclosure, I love the blues. And I love Van’s vocals. He sings with a passion on these songs that really resonates. The title track, “Roll With the Punches” and “Too Much Trouble” are my favorite of the original, Van-penned tracks. Those are just good ol’ blues tunes. If I have a complaint about the early part of the record, it’s that Van lets his buddies sing a verse or two (too many) on several of the early tracks. I like Chris Farlowe duetting with Van on “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue” but I’m not as crazy about Georgie Fame singing entire parts of “Goin’ To Chicago.” I mean, I wanna hear Van sing. when he comes in on “Goin’ To Chicago” it’s just apparent he’s such a better singer than Fame is. Oh well, this music all has a loose, laid-back vibe, why not toss the lead vocals around the room.

“How Far From God” by Sister Rosetta Thorpe (with great boogie-woogie piano and rumbling vocal from Van) and “Benediction” by Mose Allison remind us that blues ain’t that far from gospel. I really like those tunes. Van’s own “Ordinary People” is bluesier and grittier in this incarnation with Jeff Beck’s slippery guitar, although I’ll admit I wish they’d turned off Georgie’s microphone on the harmony vocal. Towards the end of the album, the blues start to really take off. “Automobile Blues” is a great car/road blues tune and might have been the blueprint for Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat.” It rumbles along. “Mean Old World” is an old T Bone Walker song that I think Clapton might have done in Derek And The Dominos. Van does it right on this album with a piano, bass, brushed drums and Paul Jones’ wonderful harmonica solo. It’s another highlight here. The last track, “Ride On Josephine” might just be the best track on here, other than “Bring It On Home To Me,” its another rolling blues tune. Beck’s guitar is again, exceptional as is Van’s vocal on “Josephine.”

This is a very strong return after last year’s exceptional ‘Keep Me Singing.’ It appears Van is on another late career roll, similar to when he released ‘Down The Road,’ ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture,’ and ‘Magic Time.’ This album gets a strong recommendation to purchase immediately. Pour some good Irish Jameson in a tumbler and ride the blues train, baby.

Cheers!

 

 

B&V Goes Out Drinking, Supports Live Music: Kansas City’s Amanda Fish

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Anymore I find myself staying home more often than not. My Howard Hughes-hermit-loner phase is getting stronger. I haven’t quite got the point where I’m urinating into milk bottles, but I’m sure that’s coming. I seem to forget to shave for days on end but at least I do bathe regularly. The problem for the Rock Chick and me is that our friends are all married with children. Usually we just end up alone, sitting on the deck, sipping something strong.

However, work does occasionally pull me out of the house. I had one such evening a couple of Wednesdays ago. A guy who works for me, who I’ll call Ned, came to Kansas City so we could do some “second half planning,” which means eat BBQ and drink. After a rigorous afternoon spent in the office where surprisingly to me we actually did some work, Ned and I headed out to one of Kansas City’s premier BBQ joints, Q39. It may possibly be the best BBQ I’ve ever had and I’ve had a lot. The place is always packed. Although I must admit I was terribly disappointed they’ve removed the burnt ends from the appetizer menu, but this isn’t the place to air my grievances.

After feasting on perfectly smoked beast, Ned and I sat at the bar sipping whiskey. After a quick Google-Map search, I saw that he was staying at a downtown hotel, near a couple of bars I used to frequent prior to meeting the Rock Chick. While I don’t go out or drink on weeknights anymore, sometimes when I do, the wind just sort of pushes me along, I never know where I’ll find myself. I end up bouncing from bar to bar, talking to strangers, in the old days bumming cigarettes and making people laugh. I’m like Tyrion Lannister, “I drink and I know things.” I’m out spreading joy folks, one bar, one drink at a time. Although now it’s without the cigarettes.

We quickly Uber’ed down to John’s Big Deck on Wyandotte. We went bounding up the stairs, which I had trouble finding (I really need to get out more) and went up to the big deck a few flights up. John’s Big Deck boasts, as you would expect, a giant deck on the roof that has a magnificent view of KC’s skyline. The sign by the stairs reads, “Can You Handle Our Big Deck.” It was just that kind of night. Ned is from a “Red” state and I’m not sure he was emotionally prepared for the mix of hipsters, bohemians, and gay off-duty waiters in the crowd up there. We sat at the end of the bar and I educated the youngsters around me on the politics of income inequality. It didn’t take long before it was just Ned and I sitting at the end of the bar… I suppose you should never talk a little treason on a Wednesday night in Kansas City…

I was restless, as I’m prone to be, and after a few rounds, it was time to walk up a block or so to the Phoenix, a piano bar on 8th street. I briefly dated, more like “hung out with,” a woman who lived in that neighborhood, many moons ago, and we drank at the Phoenix quite a bit. The Rock Chick and I actually took our dear friend Rhonda, who is newer to town, down there one Saturday afternoon this spring. I always loved the Phoenix. There was a bald piano player, whose name escapes me, who might have owned the place at one time and he used to play there almost every night. Any more, you never know what you’ll find there. Most of the time it’s a small jazz trio/combo. I’ve heard some great singers in the Phoenix and since we were close, I felt Ned deserved the full Kansas City experience – BBQ and jazz.

We quickly bellied up to the bar and I noticed the crowd was a little thin. I was a tad worried there’d be no music. Suddenly a young woman, who looked vaguely familiar to me, but whom I couldn’t place, sat down behind the piano with an acoustic guitar. She started strumming the guitar and singing. I thought, “Oh, great, some college chick has come in to warble tortured romantic folks songs.” I put my nose in my beer and Nate and I chatted about sports. Every now and then, the singer’s voice would pierce through the fog the boilermakers were creating around my head and I’d think, “Wow, what a strong voice this chick has.” I quietly imagined her as busker on some street corner who had wandered into a great gig at premier jazz bar.

After a few acoustic guitar songs, the singer turned and pulled up an electric guitar. “Well, this just got interesting,” I said to Ned… The gal sang a few blues tunes but she really caught my attention when she played “Angel,” a Jimi Hendrix song. It was also covered by Rod Stewart, which I mention because it actually comes into play later in this story. Ned leaned over and said, “The music this gal is playing just keeps getting better… I don’t think it’s the booze.” Indeed, I don’t think we were drinking this gal’s music pretty, as the saying goes… she was incredibly talented. Ned and my conversation soon halted as we listened to this woman sing. “Who is this talented woman,” I kept muttering. I knew I’d heard her voice before.

Almost as quickly as she’d discarded the acoustic guitar, she put aside the electric guitar and turned to the piano. I couldn’t help but think, this woman is like Prince, there’s no instrument she can’t play. She belted a perfect rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” I was all in now. I had turned away from the bar and was staring straight at her, trying to place her face. It was starting to get late and I knew Ned was ready to crash but I had to stay for one more song. She broke into the old Etta James’ tune, “I’d Rather Go Blind.” As she finished, Ned tabbed us out and we lurched toward the door. I had to speak to this woman… I pulled all the loose cash I’d accumulated over an evening of drinking and said to her, “Miss, this is a feeble tip considering the amazing music you’ve played here tonight,” and dropped the money in the tip jar.

She smiled and thanked me. I had to ask, “That version of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” was that inspired by the Etta James version or the Rod Stewart version? It was spot on.” The singer asked me, “Rod Stewart did that song?” I said yes, with Ronnie Wood. And this is the moment I embarrassed myself… She asked, “With the Faces?” I’m old, and deaf and thought she said, “on the bass?” I’m sure I looked puzzled when I replied, “No, Ronnie played guitar.” In my defense, not many young people know about the Faces. She was laughing at me now, when she repeated loudly, “The Faces, I know Ronnie plays the guitar.” I smiled as the Faces reference finally registered, as everyone knows, I love the Faces. Rod’s version was recorded by the Faces but released on one of his solo albums.

And, since I hadn’t embarrassed myself enough, I said, “What is your name, you’re super talented…” Ned was holding something just outside of my peripheral vision, but I was locked in on the singer’s face. She looked a tad astonished that I’d asked. “I’m Amanda Fish…” I glanced to my left and Ned was holding her CD, with her name printed on it just out of my vision. Amanda Fish! I almost swatted my hand upon my forehead. The Blues Gods should have smote me dead on the spot. If you haven’t heard Amanda Fish yet, you soon will. She’s an amazing talent. If you dig raw blues, pick up her LP ‘Down In The Dirt’ immediately. I’d seen her several times, but I was always in the back of a room, and she was always on stage with a band. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize her close up. I blushed when I saw and heard her say her name. I wanted to crawl into a hole… at least the whiskey helped…

This, people, is why I don’t go out anymore. But then again, maybe this is a cautionary tale, a sign, telling me I should get out more… it’s hard to know how to read this sign.

If you get the chance to see live music, especially the blues or rock and roll, and especially if it’s Amanda Fish, do yourself a favor and buy the ticket. Take the ride!

Cheers!