Monday, January 23, 2023

THE BRILLIANTLY UNEVEN CAREER OF DAVID CROSBY

Photo by David Ochs
 David Crosby, RIP. He was a wonderful singer who revolutionized folk harmonies, fusing them with the electric strum of loud rock. As a member of the Byrds he played a large part in creating a new genre that influenced thousands of musicians and hundreds of bands, an impact that is still hard today in younger artists. He wrote or cowrote a fair number of genius songs --"Why", "Eight Miles High", "Triad", "Everyone's Been Burned", "Dolphin Smile", "Draft Morning", "What's Happening", "Deja Vu", among others. When the key vocalist and principal songwriter Gene Clark left the Byrds after the second album, he and the other members of the band stepped up their songwriting chops and kept the Byrds a fresh, vital, and energetic sound. Sometimes, he was inconsistent in quality as a songwriter, and wallowing in sheer hippie muddleheadness.  "Almost Cut My Hair"? --but his best songs are among the best of the period. You can go so far that the songs achieve the elusive quality of being timeless in steeply musical terms. The hooks still seduce you; the melodies continue to set a seamless mood; the words evoke atmospheres and situations that refuse the taint of age. Crosby's best words, melodies, and vocals returned you precise moments of wonder.  I can't think of any ballads that set a higher mark than "Everyone's Been Burned" or "Triad". His genuinely splendid work is thin, however, being his studio work with the Byrds and the first two CSN (and Y) releases. I only lent half an ear to his work after those discs and found them inconsistent--some good, some dreadful, some simply unmemorable. Crosby's legacy is secure, though, as he always will be THAT GUY in the Byrds and THAT GUY in CSN (and Y) who help create music that hasn't, on its terms, been equaled. 

An issue I've always had with the original edition of the Byrds' last release in the original formation, The Notorious Byrds Brothers (1968), was the omission of two A plus Crosby compositions, "Triad" and "Lady Friend".  The latter was their previous single, released due to Crosby's conviction that it would be a hit, but it charted poorly on the Billboard charts. The singer's stock within the band fell dramatically according to various accounts, and members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman chose to release a Gerry Goffman-Carol King tune "Going Back", a saccharine imitation of a Byrds-like song that did, however, do far better on the charts than did "Lady Friend" Tensions within the band were already at a breaking point, much of due to Crosby's habit of giving extended political raps between songs during live performances. After some arguments over Crosby's songs, McGuinn and Hill fired the aggrieved singer and released Notorious Byrd Brothers. Notorious could have been their best album had they passed up on the Goffin-King songs "Goin' Back" and Wasn't Born to Follow" and instead used Crosby's "Triad" and "Lady Friend". 

I'm a decades long admirer of the Goffin and King songwriter team, but their contributions to this album never sat well with me; they sound false, and a bit contrived to construct folk-rock message songs tailored to the band's image. Something like "lets write a Dylan like song that would a sure fire hit for the Byrds." The irony has always been that the Byrds were on the leading edge of a musical movement where lyrics were authored by band members and attempted more depth of feeling and imagery. I suppose by the time NBB came along the originality they introduced to rock had already become clichés and tropes, firmly embedded in the archive of go-to style moves and were ready for weak imitation and outright parody. "Goin' Back" and "Wasn't Born to Follow" sound like parodies, intended or not, and they spoil an otherwise fine album. Crosby seemed to have become a species of professional celebrity, famous for being famous, and I wish he had more brilliant collaborating years than there were. But so many artists become and remain celebrities with inflated reputations on dramatically less quality work than Crosby produced, which is to say that the late singer-songwriter's contributions were tremendous and, most importantly, they were advancements in craft and harmony that still matter over half a century later.  God bless him for that much.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

JEFF BECK, RIP

 

News of guitarist Jeff Beck’s death comes hard. It certainly breaks my heart, as I imagine it does for anyone who followed Beck in his many incarnations since the 1960’s. At 78 years of age, he succumbed to bacterial meningitis. Even the gods give in to the wear of aging; I had the very cool pleasure of seeing him three times in my 70 years plus of existence, including his last San Diego concert a few years back. Since the glittery vibe of the 60s and all cultural eruptions until now, Beck’s guitar work, a shotgun marriage of approaches from Chicago blues, rockabilly, proto-hard rock and jazz-fusion, was permanently embedded in my life’s soundtrack.  As a blues/rock guitarist who first came to American attention during the British invasion of the Sixties with the Yardbirds and later with his string of ephemeral (but memorable) ensembles, Beck is a pioneer in matters of extending the vocabulary of an African American vernacular and incorporating elements of funk, jazz, reggae, and fusion and rockabilly into his particular mix. He’s recorded quite a bit of music that still makes me turn my head and stare incredulously at the speakers; when he wasn’t being cheap with his playing and willing to lavish more in guitar bravado, his guitar work is of a whole piece. Not just flashy solos, which were, in fact, the least of Beck's best art, but control of tone color, splendidly, tasty fills in the interstices of his bands alternately rocking or fun.  Jeff Beck is a great guitarist because, while his compatriots were concentrating on the number of notes they could cram into a twelve-bar or sixteen-bar phrase, he did what makes him great. 

 Beck filled his solo slots with the gift of space, fewer notes, high register bends, and unique tunings, while others dominated their songs and performances with fusillades that eventually became a comfortable rut. I put forth his first two albums The Jeff Beck Group and Beckola in evidence and skip ahead to his fusion release Wired and still later Beck’s Guitar Shop as prime examples. That sweet, discerning blend of flash, taste, discretionary speed, off-center attack and an uncanny mastery of electric guitar volume are marvels for future generations to listen to if they wonder what all fuss was about. These weren’t records by an artist still making his reputation. Presently, his reputation is made, his name now a brand, his work too frequently a stylized snore.  Again, I wish Beck would indulge the less savory side of his musical nature and burn a hole in the state no one can leap over. That, though, is part of the fun of treating musicians and their work. All the rapid, distorted, flashier bits are missing in large measure in the interest of a more mature purity because Beck has refined his style to the point that he is drastically essentialist in tweaking his playing.  Beck has always been the most audacious of the Yardbirds triad, and he's easily the unique: only Hendrix rivals him for advancing rock guitar by light-years, and it's lucky for us that he's stayed alive to add to his legacy. Jeff Beck has made a few terrible records, but his guitar work is always better than the others. He is one of the original British blues-rock pioneers who has learned how to blend his style musical situations with strict-rock. At his best, he is riveting like no other guitarist can be. The band from the albums Truth and Beckola rocked hard with a loose but fierce rhythm section and Beck's guitar work seared like nothing else that had come before. People left their concerts without eyelashes. Becks' guitar licks sliced the meat in the butcher shop across the street, powered the generators at the ER when the lights went out. Rod Stewart's' singing forced ugly cops to stay indoors on nice days. 

The July 22nd concert at the Mattress Firm Amphitheater was a revelation, I've had the honor of seeing Beck three times previously. Fluid, fast, angular, bluesy, full of blues phrasing framed sidewise, and in reverse order, tonalities from a refined adaptation of Indian classical improvisation, splintered chromaticism, power chords, fusion dynamics, and the sweetest lyric playing one would wish for. And yes, lots of funk. All of this, of course, with a fine band, including drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting, Herbie Hancock), vocalist Jimmy Hall, and bassist Rhonda Smith.  Although not a hyper virtuoso similar to Joe Pass or John McLaughlin, two guitarists he clearly admires, Beck has, all the same, spent the majority of his career in a state of perpetual flux. Sometimes his playing, in my regard, missed the mark. He was always adding to his armory, changing his style, broadening his understanding of where a solo could go, and now he seems to be a superior style that's all of a piece without seams, without stitches. 

Simple, winsomely stated phrases built into quick-witted crescendos. It was a night was a rich, fluent display of all his 50 years of experiments, investigations, inquiries into all manner of music from around the world. It was fluid, intense, the work of a singular artist at the very top of his form.

 

 

WAYNE RIKER SHREDS THE BLUES

Little can  can   be added to the praise blues guitar maestro Wayne Riker has already gotten,. Much of it bears repeating, with vigor, if only for of music lovers unfamiliar with the magnificence he applies to the blues. In recent memory, Riker has released a scintillating slew of top tier blues guitar efforts, particularly on two grand slam showcases. The first, 2018’s Blues Breakout, is a hard power trio effort with a surfeit of the guitarist’s quick-witted licks. Wayne fills all the spaces and enter a rapture as his long improvisations overrun with slinky, sleek, and slicing ideas, one atop the other. The second, 2020’s Blues Lightning, a pulsing session with swift riffs, a well-greased rhythm section, and a series of guest vocals by an assemblage of the best blues singers available. Punchy, rocking, the guitarist, band, and his guest singers show a proficiency in feeling and finesse for a variety of r&b categories. His new album, Alphabetical Blues Bash Volume l, has a new edition of the Wayne Riker Gathering with bassist Oliver Shirly lll drummer Marty Dodson, and a familiar cast of grit-worthy guest vocalists. As with Blues Lightning, the new release highlights a familiar cast of grit-worth guest singers, Shelle Blue, Lauren Leigh, Billy Watson, Janet Hammer, Deanna Haala, Debra Galan, Ron Houston, Michele Lundeen, Liz Ajuzie, Rebecca Jade, and Ron Christopher Jones. The strategy of the record is an alphabetical, A through M, gathering of diverse blues classics, famous and obscure, highlighting both the quality tones of the respective vocalists and t Riker’s understanding of styles and nuance. An additional pleasure of ABB Vol l are the instrumental pieces, brief impromptus sans vocals where the guitarist’s virtuoso sense of touch is on full exhibit. A tune that grabbed me straight away was a funky version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Checking Up on My Baby.” Riker, and company jack-up the pace, with Wayne’s guitar work pops and punches in rhythmic precision, and his solos add a cutting series of blues licks against the rock steady backbeat. Lauren Leigh’s vocal is hot spice and fire, strong and brassy, with a bit of Aretha coming through as she soars on the high notes.

Scintillating as well is the instrumental rendition on the Robert Johnson -Elmore James work horse ‘Dust My Broom.” Hewing to the traditional arrangement, Riker’s slide guitar states the swooping introductory riff with a smooth, glistening tone and touch as he coaxes, cajoles, and caresses a gallantly melodic improvisation that simulates a singer’s expression of wonder and woe. Riker’s configurations swoop and loop over, and around the foundation. His taste in short fills, quick riffs, roiling accents in the high registers are applied with a painter’s sense of how to fill space. The classic Peggy Lee hit “Fever” (written by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport) receives a sultry interpretation by Jane Hammer, who does well with the low-key arrangement, as her whisper -like phrasing works sexily with Riker’s subdued chord work. This is the sound of seduction.; the guitar solo, spare, framed by exquisitely cresting blues bends and shadings, is the textbook example of creating musical tension and then releasing. Rocking harder is the take on Don Nix’s “Going Down,” a blues rock standard that’s had pulverizing iterations by Freddie King, and Jeff Beck, among others. 

Wayne Riker takes up the tune and refuses to take a back seat. His guitar work soars, stings, and wails down the descending progression, mischievously teasing the edges of Deanna Haala’s in-your-face lead vocal. Especially bracing, in a pleasant way, is the revival of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” pushed hard by Michele Lundeen’s rust-coated vocal. The band digs in hard on the changes, with bandleader Wayne unleashing a glorious and bittersweet solo, every note hitting the target dead square. I recommend paying special attention to the two other guitar displays on this fine blues outing, Bill Doggett’s “Honkey Tonk” and ‘Hank Williams’ “Move it Over.” Wayne Riker performs with the feeling and a virtuoso’s ease of play. He is simply wonderful at finding the spirit, emotion, the vibe, and verve of a song and then bringing it out with his guitar in wonderful, atypical ways.


Tuesday, November 22, 2022

THE WHITE ALBUM RECONSIDERED (sort of)

  

So, what is the lasting value of “The White Album,” alias The Beatles? value is that while it lacks the thematic line that many critics have insist is needed for a record to be considered having a timeless and inexhaustible quality, The White Album has a high ratio of songs that are well crafted, ingenious, lyrically sound, musically diverse. It's been said that this is less an album by a band than it is three solo albums where the artists use each other as back up musicians for their individual endeavors, something that indicates that the members had done as much as they could with each other as creative partners and would soon enough branch off as solo artists. This precisely at the time when the song craft had matured and the songwriting personality of the three principal contributors, Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, became fully apparent and distinct. It's a grab bag of styles, attitudes, personal expression, a harbinger of future ex-Beatles to come.

 I go along with the idea that even the minor songs on this album are minor only in the sense that they aren't quite up to the level of pop masterpiece standards the Beatles themselves established. Meaning that they fall short compared to other compositions in the band's canon, but not against pop music in general. Even reputedly trivial or whimsical efforts like “Honey Pie” or “Goodnight” , “Don't Pass Me By”, or “Obla Di Oba Da (Life Goes On)” reveal a remarkable grasp of diverse song styles and craft; all the tunes have the expected Beatle signature touches, and it's remarkable that it is these trademarked stylistics that keep their dalliance in non-rock or r and b pop styles from sounding like parodies or nostalgic.  What The Beatles (White Album) and the follow up release Abbey Road reveal is the band's skill at brilliantly being able to move across the timeline of popular genres and make music that remains, as Shakespeare does, modern, relevant, and resistant to fad and fancy. It could be said that one of the great Missed Opportunities in rock history was that the Beatles at their most fruitful never wrote their own "rock opera", a real and sustained narrative in musical form. Or even the music and lyrics for a Broadway musical. Listening to this record again makes you daydream of what might have been.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

A THICK PARAGRAPH CONDENSING THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BOB DYLAN AND LEONARD COHEN

 

Bob Dylan is, in essence and in fact, a song lyricist who has a particularly strong gift for the poetic effect, while Cohen is a poet in the most coherent sense; he had published several volumes of poetry and published two novels before his taking up the guitar. Dylan's style is definitely the definition of the postmodern jam session, a splendid mash-up of Little Richard, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and a long line of obscure or anonymous folk singers whose music he heard and absorbed. His lyrics, however arcane and tempered with Surreal and Symbolist trappings--although the trappings, in themselves, were frequently artful and inspired--he labored to the pulse of the chord progression, the tight couplets, the strict obedience to a rock and roll beat. This is the particular reason he is so much more quotable than Cohen has turned out to be; the songwriter's instinct is to get your attention and keep it, and to have you humming the refrain and singing the chorus as you walk away from the music player to attend to another task. Chances are that you are likely to continue humming along with the music while you work, on your break, on the drive home, for the remains of the day. This is not to insist that Cohen is not quotable or of equal worth--I am in agreement that Cohen, in general, is the superior writer to Dylan, and is more expert at presenting a persona that is believably engaged with the heartaches, pains and dread-festooned pleasures his songs take place. His lyrics are more measured, balanced, and less exclamatory and time-wasting, and exhibit a superior sense of irony. Cohen is the literary figure, the genuine article, which comes to songwriting with both his limitations and his considerable gifts. All is to say that Dylan has Tin Pan Alley throwing a large shadow over his work. Cohen, in turn, is next to a huge bottle of ink and a quill. Cohen tends the words he uses more than Dylan does; his language is strange and abstruse at times, but beyond the oddity of the existences he sets upon his canvas there exists an element that is persuasive, alluring, masterfully wrought with a writing, from the page alone, that blends all the attendant aspects of Cohen’s stressed worldliness– sexuality, religious ecstasy, the burden of his whiteness– into a whole, subtly argued, minutely detailed, expertly layered with just so many fine, exacting touches of language.  His songs, which I find the finest of the late 20th century in English–only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell and Paul Simon, have comparable bodies of work–we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase that’s applied to his themes, his storylines. In many writers overall. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty years, I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he’s been a better critic of the work he’s released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen’s songbook that wasn’t less than considered, pondered over, measured for effect and the achievement of the cultivated ambiguity that made you yearn for some of the sweet agonies that accompanies a permanent residence in the half-lit zone between the sacred and the profane.

Friday, October 28, 2022

JERRY LEE LEWIS, RIP

 

Rock and Roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis has died, age 87, the last of the maverick troublemakers and innovators who changed forever popular music.  Chuck Berry and Little Richard in their prime always meant more to me, but Lewis was a close third in my personal rock and roll canon. 
No one could pound a piano with more verve or energy, and it seemed to me watching old clips of him live over that he was not so much playing piano as he was committing assault upon it. His singing, as well, was unique, his own and impossible to cogently emulate. His southern accent became a tight, coiled sound that was as much about barely constrained energy as it was about tone, timbre, or range. 

It was a primitive glee to raise havoc that battered the limits of the chord progressions. God help the audience if whatever possessed this artist escaped the musical bars that constrained it. That Jerry Lee Lewis found a second career as a fully realized country artist only makes sense; one always had the feeling that he thought the Devil and God were wrestling for his soul. 

If rock and roll were the indulgence of the baser, untamed qualities of the human spirit, country was the area where home, hearth, heartbreak, and healing of a sort could balance the emotional scales. He was an original architect of rock and roll, a phenomenon that will not reoccur in any future unfolding of human history.

Friday, October 21, 2022

BLUES WHITE OUT

 

Rock stars with awful voices by formal standards are some of my favorite singers of black rhythm and blues music. Let me try to clarify. Mick Jagger is a vocalist who learned to work brilliantly with the little singing ability God deigned to give him: knowing that he didn't have the basic equipment to even come close to simulating Muddy Waters or Wilson Pickett, he did something else instead in trying to sing black and black informed music-- talk-singing, the whiny, mewling purr, the bull moose grunt, the roar, the grunts and groans, the slurs and little noises , all of which he could orchestrate into amazing, memorable performances.

One Plus One(Sympathy for the Devil)Godard's film of the Stones writing, rehearsing and finally recording the song of the title, is especially good because it captures the irresolute tedium of studio existence (in between Godard's didactic absurdist sketches attempting to address the conundrum of leftist media figures being used by invisible powers to squelch true revolutionary change). More than that, we see Jagger piecing together his vocal, his mewling reading of the lyrics from the lyric sheet; his voice is awful, in its natural state. But we do witness Jagger getting bolder as the song progresses through the endless stoned jamming, a grunt added here, a raised syllable here, a wavering croon there. Finally, we are at the last take, and Jagger is seen with headphones on, isolated from the others, screaming his head off into a microphone while the instrumental playback pours forth, in what is presumably the final take.

Jagger, all irony and self-awareness, created something riveting and for all time with the marginal instrument he was born with, and is part of what I think is a grand tradition of white performers who haven't a prayer of sounding actually black who none the less molded a style of black-nuanced singing that's perfectly credible: Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Felix Cavalari (Rascals), Eric Burdon (early Animals), Peter Wolf, late of the under appreciated J.Geils Band.We cannot underestimate Keith Richard's contribution to Jagger's success as a vocalist. Someone had to know how to write tunes Jagger could handle, and Keith was just the man to do it. Richard's guitar work, as well, riffs and attacks and staggers in ways that match Jagger's strutting and mincing. Writing is everything, as always.t's an inescapable fact that blues is an African American art form , as is jazz and, for that matter, rock and roll at its most vital, and that there are talented, brilliant and exciting black musicians who continue to play the music, innovate within its historical definitions and extend those definitions to keep the music contemporary, alive, and most important, relevant to the way people, players and listeners, live today.
It's my belief, inscribed deeply on the most fundamental set of moral convictions I have, that to ignore the plentitude of black talent, whether they are young, middle aged, or elderly, if you're a music editor, a record company executive, a promoter specializing in blues festivals, a club owner highlight blues and roots acts, is racism, clear and simple. It's a racism on a subtle level, but damaging all the same; a decision was made to exclude black musicians from this list. Compiling a list of the worthy is always problematic,fraught with all sorts of dangers because any number of readers can be offended for insular reasons no writer can predict. But what's offensive about this list is the laziness of the selection. I happen to like a number of the artists here and believe musicians like Black Keys, Joe Bonamassa, Susan Tedeschi and others are legitimate blues musicians.
Their skin color isn't their fault, and , to me,the quality of their chops and the authenticity of their feeling are "real". I will also give the writers credit for including a good number of women on the list.Still, the lack of black musicians is inexcusable and reveals a conspicuous , egregious choice by the editors to remain loyal to their skin hue. Where was Sugar Blue? Lucky Peterson? The Eric Gale Band?Shemekia Copeland? Alvin Hart? Sapphire?Gary Clark Jr? Keb Mo? These players deserve wider recognition no less than the ones who made the list; I have a strong, strong suspicions that an inexcusable laziness directed the selection process, formed, no doubt, by a profound lack of curiosity on the part of the "critics" who, by the definition of their job, are supposed to knowledgeable and curious about things that fall outside their comfort zone. I suspect also that those making the selection were entirely white; as such,they stuck with the skin color they are most comfortable with.


Wednesday, October 12, 2022

From the vault: Todd Rundgren's Utopia

 


Todd Rundgren is one of those aggravating rock whiz kids who can dually amaze you with his music and make you ill with his lyrics, which carry tile theme of cosmic consciousness and hayseed mysticism to more pompous degrees than even Yes' Joe Anderson. Ra, a 1977 effort with an occasional band, the ostensibly progressive rock and sometimes brilliantly kinetic Utopia, continued the Rundgren tragedy of good music with awful lyrics. When matters are at their best when the singing stops and the band is given the room to negotiate odd time signatures and reveal, in doing so, a remarkable, amazing in fact capacity to handle any style that strikes their collective fancy. The band (Roger Powell, Kisim Sulton, John Wilcox) proceeds towards some charging, frenetic, deliciously clever music.But Rundgren, like, Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, allows the lyrics to become full-blown libretto. The merits of the extended narrative and the underlying bits of spiritualism is a debate left for those who seek truth in tea leaves and horoscopes, but the experience of having the words come at you, sun or recited in equal measure, makes this a record that does not rock you at all. Rather, it talks you into a fitful sleep, with dreams punctuated by agitated percussion. Most notable on side two's extended workout"Singring and The Glass Guitar", a detailed parable that breaks up the music, with Rundgren droning on with the plot particulars. The fantasy, what there is of it, is belabored at length. Every time the band begins something interesting or when Rundgren is doing an impressive guitar exposition, the recited lyrics intrude again, and so on. Either Rundgren considers himself a wise fabulist, or he just employs this dreck to kill time, fleshing out and lending continuity to passages he could not otherwise connect. The discerning 'Rundgren fan will throw away the lyric sheet and let the music mitigate the intellectual vacuity. Taking his world view seriously is like reading between the lines on a blank page.


Saturday, October 1, 2022

NOT A FAN


Some time ago I recall being asked if there was a song that I did not just hate, but rather loved to hate. There were many, really, the pretentious, the precious, the infantile, the catchy earwig of a pop tune that  wouldn't leave your work and slumbering consciousness, the lyrically vapid lament, the intellectually bankrupt screed, the trope choked attempts at poetic imagery. There was so much bad music being made every day,  by the hour, finding its way to the AM and FM airwaves --back in a time when Radio was the only means of finding music without leaving the house for the record store-- that picking only one seemed Herculean in the potential exertion. But then it became easy in a flashing revelation, which was the idea that there needed to be a song that I loathed to the extent that the hatred of the tune became a life force, an uncompromising stance of opposition defining, it wold seem to me, the quality of my tastes, my philosophy of the world, my basic decency as a protector of all matters cool, sublime and fun. 

I had no philosophy and precious little character at that time in my development, just a bunch of engineered wants, desires and hormonal imperatives that were gussied up with big words and the titles of ominous books cleaned from a scan of library shelves. I just didn't like the tune, it's that simple, but I did construct a rather pat sounding diatribe against it. But even until now, I remember until now trotting out my memorized script to recite my reservations about the worst song every record, Iron Butterfly's "Inna Gadda Da Vidda."There are scads of songs that take turns occupying my Most Loathed Tune list, but the perennial chart topper is Iron Butterfly's "Inna Gadda Da Vidda".Bear in mind that the song was released when I was just getting into the thickest portion of my rock-as-an -art form obsession and wasn't in a mood to kid around, or make exceptions to my criteria about what made for acceptable particulars in a smart band arrangement.It was as if the band had purloined a copy of my conceits and went out of their way to make record a song contrary to the requirements just to ruin a evert day off and cigarette break I managed to get.
. A ham-handed guitar riff, bong-fury drum solo, screech and scrape solos, plodding pace. This describes a large measure of what was being sold those days by many bands, but Iron Butterfly held the distinction of being one of the most universally loathed bands in history, at least in my circles. No
 one I knew would cop to owning or liking the song --I only found IB fans when I ventured out of my neighborhood searching for select drugs.What was irritating mostly about "Inna Gadda Da Vidda" was that it was a song so awful that drugs didn't improve the listening experience, or even make it tolerable. It was worse, in fact, the wrong soundtrack for the pursuit of bliss.

Monday, August 22, 2022

NEVER TOO MUCH COLTRANE OR DOLPHY

 THE COMPLETE 1961 VILLAGE VANGUARD  RECORDINGS--
John Coltrane

John Coltrane--tenor sax / Eric Dolphy--alto sax, bass clarinet /Ahmed Abdul-Malik--oud / McCoy Tyner--piano Jimmy Garrison--bass Reggie Workman--bass / Elvin Jones--drums. 


From the four CD set, the first disc alone is mightily impressive for sheer stamina , and many sections of sublime improvisation. Jones rattles the traps in brisk rhythms, while Coltrane sets fires throughout the side. There are times when 'Coltrane gives in to his worse impulses--but these are brief enough, as Dolphy's alto playing, and his work with the bass clarinet, is enough to make me almost believe that there is a heaven. His bristling inventiveness, his inspired and assertive leaps between intervals, pitches, tones, and harmonic constructions approach enter the realm of pure avant garde sonics, but there is as well a sense of his spontaneous compositions remaining anchored in the bop tradition. These assets make him a perfect counterpart to Coltrane, whose rapidity of ideas, one chorus after the other extending a melody's potential to sustain a flood of brilliantly articulated notes , gives the whole of this four CD set a sustained, spell binding allure.   What had seemed alien to mainstream, bop-preferring audiences as radical and un-jazz like at the time is now a given in the repertoire of younger improvisers. There is not a musician today who can match  John Coltrane for the furious ingenuity that came from his soul by way of his instrument. Modal and operating on a rhythmic principle that  makes me think of W.C.Williams' alluring yet elusive notion of the 'variable foot" of rhythm--cadences and stresses are constantly changing into nearly perfect accents based on the vocalizations of a word arranged in spontaneous combination that convey meaning and purpose in sound as well as strict definitions--Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman construct an ever-evolving foundation , a brooding firmament on which Coltrane, Tyner  and Dolphy overlay a delicious and difficult weave of odd moods and desperate beauty. This is the kind of music that makes me sometimes think that I was born twenty years too late.

Friday, August 19, 2022

THE CLAPTON WE DESERVED

 


 The more cynical among us might dismiss this effort by bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker as a blatant money-grab to secure filthy lucre from nostalgic fans of Cream, replacing founding member Eric Clapton with stalwart blues—rock specialist Gary Moore. Two parts Cream is better than no Cream at all? But hold on a second, Moore's guitar work matches and very often exceeds the admittedly early brilliance of Clapton from those studio and live discs; Moore is technically far more advanced as a musician than Clapton, but what saves the Irish fret lord from being merely another wind-up virtuoso is his retention of the raw aggression, emotion, power of the blues.

 In this video, you'll note that he pretty well recreates Clapton's tone from the period and reveals great evidence of having spent hours, hundreds of hours playing EC with guitar in hand learning his phrasing, his timing, his dynamic sense. This is likely to be the best Clapton tribute that will ever come to be.Moore presents the particulars of EC's style that make me think that this was his (Clapton's) the best era as a guitarist. The timing, the tone, the frantic unpredictability of his blues intonations as the self-taught guitarist battled with the jazz-trained Bruce and Baker in those extended improvisations that were Cream's stock-in-trade.

 Moore brings all that to this performance, and effortlessly incorporates this fiery and swift riffing as well to remind you who's controlling the wah-wah pedal. Bruce and Baker, of course, are in fine shape as aging rock musicians, each improving and goading each other to different rhythmic emphasis, all of which Moore elaborates upon with inspiring blues improvisational escapades. It's refreshing that Moore seems to refuse to treat Cream's canonical songbook with any over reverence. He makes the material his own, and though Clapton's shadow looms over all of his flights, the Irish guitarist takes full possession of the solo spaces allotted and fills with a superbly honed manner, a gregarious aggression you might say.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

WOODSTOCKING AND BAD FAITH

 I had enough trouble maintaining an even keel when the film Woodstock was released in 1970. Even as a 17-year-old poet wannabe who loved the idea that Youth Culture, The Counter Culture, the new poetry found in the New Music would be of great transforming value for the world to yet to come, something about the famous account of the 1969 rock festival in upstate New York—something about the documentary concerning the famed rock festival had an off-putting hubris. All those hippies gathered for no good purpose, catching a ride on the swells of a collective ego, seemed a massive wallow in self-congratulations for being groovy beyond redemption. I remember mostly maintain my cool about the hype around the mythos of the event and the overpraise for the film, only to lose it finally in the matter when in 1981 NBC opted to broadcast the film on the concert’s tenth anniversary. Typical of a ratings grab, the network overkilled the entire enterprise. Rather than showing the film as it was (already noteworthy for its sense of self-congratulation), the powers that be at the network instead whittled it down into something safe and defused, entitled Woodstock Relived. In their production, NBC managed to change Woodstock from an historical footnote where pleasant memories can be derived and gave it the substance of a daydream. Woodstock Relived became, literally, naught but the magic land of Oz. and the audience, a gaggle of Dorothies stranded in a metaphysical Kansas of the soul, became suddenly transported to a land where dreams come true, and all endings are happy. NBC's purpose, I suppose, was to make the surfeit of long-hair, strange costumes, loud music, hints of nudity and free-love in the original motion picture somehow acceptable to the mainstream TV public by contriving a method that would "explain" the phenomena to an audience who might still be bewildered by the fête ten years hence. 


The primary proof of this is their choice of hiring Beau Bridges to provide a running commentary. Seated on a set equipped with a TV monitor, Bridges exuded the authoritarian calm of Walter Cronkite, seeming to adjudicate over a political convention. Where the first version of Wood51ock trusted the editing and the sequence of scenes to form their narrative—perhaps they had a better sense of who their potential audience was—the NBC editors would often flash the beginning of a musical act as Bridges would fit the film into a strained metaphorical context, as evidenced by two principal scenes in which the wishful thinking interpretation of the event belies its banality. In the first. Joe Cocker's head appears on the screen as the first strains of "A Little Help from My Friends" are played while off to the side, looking mellowly certain of his line. Bridges waxes poetic ~t: 'II on the spirit of cooperation that distinguished the event, citing the music as proof positive of his thesis with the words "When Joe Cocker began to sing. He told the world what Woodstock was all about." My response and others as well, was a loud "oh come on now." not because Bridge's analogy sounded stupid but because even a cursory examination of historical fact brings the whole notion of\ what the counter-culture actually was into question .ln fact, "what Woodstock was all about" was a matter of too many people showing up for an event whose producers expected less dense crowds, an alarming strain on existing food, toilet, sleeping and medical capabilities. And the remarkably benign response of surrounding townspeople. The National Guard and the Army to alleviate the hazards of overcrowding. 


And Cocker himself, being less than the spokesman for anyone, was a scheduled performer with only one US hit who had to play under the most unusual of circumstances. Wood - stock, in other words, was an accident of circumstances, and the fact that the crowd was more or less peaceful was little else but a fortuitous fluke. The NBC folks, though, wanted a structure in which to place the fair, a coherent "theme" with which to make the film an item one could stand, so they exercised their kind of historical revisionism, a revisionism intended to give the illusion that Woodstock can be understood in the most banal set of generalizations. More insidious than forcing the image of Cocker into a cheap, glittering cliché was the way they represented Country Joe McDonald. If memory serves me correctly. McDonald and his group The Fish were the mo t straightforwardly political of all the Bay Area rock and roll bands, going beyond the then trendy politics of the anti was movement and involving themselves with many new-left causes, including various benefit concerts for the Black Panthers, SDS, and other militant groups whose rhetoric frequently called for a "revolution" of a usually unspecified sort. 

The sensibilities at NBC, though, were either afraid of the depth of McDonald's obvious activism or were just plain ignorant of it, and chose instead to reduce him, like Cocker, to little more than evidence for a foregone conclusion. Completely sniping out McDonald's "Fish Cheer" ("Give me an F," and so on, until everyone is deliriously yelling FUCK). McDonald is first shown half-way through his son~ "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die' on the set's TV monitor while Bridges, his eyes puppy-wide his voice dripping a honey toned sincerity, generalized about the turmoil of the period, mentioning the dissent over the Vietnam War as a demonstration of "thousands and thousands of young people who deeply loved America who had something to say about the quality of life in this country, not just for them, but for generations to come." Then almost as an afterthought. The rest of McDonald's tune is played uninterrupted. Other examples abound endlessly throughout the run of Woodstock Relived of the way the producers of the show sought to make the original film presentable: the excising of all nudity, the elimination of all strong language that formerly peppered the soundtrack, only a cursory depiction of the drug use and most galling, Bridges' insistence that Woodstock was nothing more than "kids letting off steam." During a sequence of shots that show kids mud-sliding after a heavy rain. 

Bridges literally said something to the effect that they were engaging in "not good clean fun , but what's the difference?" The festival sounds positively wholesome, all-American, like going on a weekend retreat or sending one's son off to Boy Scout Camp. By implication, the 60s are made to sound wholesome and good clean fun, just a period of rowdy behavior no more deadly than a fraternity panty-raid. The implication, though, goes deeper, hinting that the Woodstock festival itself can be held up in the light of history as being the quintessence of what the 60s were "about." All the Prepare for variegated strands that marked the cultural and political atmosphere of the decade had merged to a head at the festival, and that each had found its fullest expression. This revisionist arrogance galls me to not end - the assumption being that Woodstock can be called representative of the 60s - but the fault in this case must fall to the TV producers and not the original filmmakers. The original Woodstock was, to its credit, a documentary of a specific event that did not attempt to generalize a world view. Even with the paucity of good music, the cretinous photography of the acts and the inane good vibe banter of the concert goers, the original Woodstock is nonetheless an accurate, if obviously biased representation of the festival, treating the event as something in and of itself, within context, without any pretense of imposing an overall "meaning." Though, the film has dated badly. 

One can still see it and retain a perspective that keeps one's sense of propriety in order: something similar to people recognizing the follies of unrepentant youth. Woodstock Relived, however, denies the original film's generic integrity and transform into an effective additive to the cultural epidemic of nostalgia, a condition that has us believing in false Edens. Like an evangelical preacher citing Bible passages over the airwaves to legitimate their political stance in terms that transcend the machinations of human being, the how's producer composed for themselves a bill of good as to what the 60 meant and used the festival the Irrefutable Truth. Woodstock thus become romanticized to the point that excludes perspective for analysis. The 60s become trivialized with no attempt to take the longer more comprehensive view of the decade, and ultimately, all of our experiences of the period become cheapened, having fallen victim to a corporate reductionism whose ideology demands a narrative style that deliver us to a horde of dollar-eyed advertiser. The larger pity of this is that anything anyone was struggling for - a better world, peace, a society free of exploitation—become part of the mainstream, the birthday ribboned package of lies we tell ourselves to have the nerve to trudge ahead into a future with something like hope. Under the shoulder-to-the-wheel bravado we drape our waking lives in, our dreams tell us what we won't speak of over breakfast, at work, or even sitting alone minding our own business, that the future is not a destination legitimated with greater and finer purpose, but merely a station of merely passing through the days with what we've learned from being alive so far. The idea is that life in -the -moment exists in what we bring to it, our experience and the eventual gathering of personal knowledge sometimes called wisdom. The real terror of this life is we wonder if we've learned anything at all up to this point. 


Friday, August 12, 2022

BEING WRONG ABOUT RY COODER

 

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The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to attend the Nov. 16 Ry Cooder concert in the UC gym. Cooder, I knew, made a name for himself for the slicing slide guitar work he did on the Rolling Stones Let It Bleed album, a record I enjoyed. But word had it that Cooder was a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, someone who does songs they've learned from hillbillies, blues pioneers, sailors, and other sources. 

In other words, Cooder wasn't any Hollywood pretty boy stroking his Ovation guitar while singing self-penned tomes to his sensitivity, like Jackson Browne (though Browne's stylistics  their reward),  Rather, Cooder was strictly bucolic, with rough edges In both voice and guitar work, not a virtuoso but engagingly honest in presentation to an audience that I suspected picked up on folk music as part of a collective rejection of high art in general.  But while my admittedly dour presuppositions could have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy ("The old and still adolescent school of making up your mind before being in possession of facts), I realized I needed to switch off the contempt. It was a bit like culture shock in your culture. Cooder, without the band he's been using for most of this tour, ambled sleepily on stage!! and sat in his chair and goaded the sound crew to "goose” the volume up in the monitors, finally imploring them to " crank it. Don't be afraid." The height of his performance was his guitar work. Basing his styles in rural blues inflections and country picking techniques, Cooder's approach is an enticing hodgepodge of effects that don't fall into any category, but rather rest between the boundaries. 

His picking is quick and firm, with the vigorous pulling of the strings, and his chord mix ragtime jazz progressions, classical chording, and blues phrasings with egalitarian ease that's positively organic. His slide work, his strongest forte, avoids the dying dog moans that neophyte players, mostly British, manage, and _ maintains a solid flow of incisively slashing riffs. The fact that he seemed affable and good-natured worked in his favor as well. He seemed to enjoy the songs he did, avoiding the sort of inverse snobbery I thought pervaded this genre and its audience. Cooder debunked that prejudicial nonsense. 

Opening the show was Mike Seeger, Pete's brother, who played banjo, fiddle, autoharp, harmonica, Jew’s harp, as well as guitar, set the night's mood with an amicable way of going about his job. The highlight of his set was his Jew’s harp playing, which with the utilization of the University's super fine sound system, approximated the unearthly buzz of interstellar insects, a ploy Pink Floyd might consider next time they take their million-dollar quad system on tour. It's astounding that sometimes the strangest emanations come not from smoky, sparking, colicky electronic amplifier banks, but from the recesses of man's musical past. His concert was refreshing to remember that not everything we’ve done as species is ugly and created with it in mind to stomp on the next guy.


JEFFERSON STARSHIP'S LONG CRASH LANDING

 

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GOLD--Jefferson Starship

The Jefferson Starship are ·one of the more remarkable Jobs of a late Sixties acid rock band re-tool their image so that they might fit in the Seventies marketplace. The original Airplane, if you· remember, were a group of LSD crazies who espoused the glory of chemically expanded consciousness years before Carlos Castaneda got Into the act. In their original conception, the Starship became paranoid revolutionaries (on paper anyway) who'd lost any grasp they had on reality, and whose political broadsides resembled a Psychedelic piece of hate literature. (The peace and love gleam had faded from the Jefferson Airplane’s collective gaze and the first Starship album, Blows Against the Empire, was a quizzical and quixotic way of trying to rouse their fans to act of resistance. I’m still hesitant to say that writing a semi-rock opera centering around hijacking a starship and heading out some a cosmic place where longhairs, dopers and select people of color wouldn’t be hassled by the man was the best way to change one’s lived-in circumstances. Ah, the Sixties…)  In this age of lower expectations, though, it's understandable that the Starship's rebel stance has wizened, and that their music has become more commercially approachable. They've placed themselves safely on the record charts with a series of hit singles and albums, the sounds of which border on the easy-listening lilt of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, or The Eagles. Lucidly for old Airplane fans, the new Starship has produced several well-crafted hits, most of which are on Gold. The standout track is Marty Balin's "Caroline," a superbly produced and arranged song that screams for radio programmers to include it on their playlist, "Miracles, " a stunningly layered ballad with an elusive, captivating melody that is , besides,  perhaps the greatest  song ever written with oral love references, and "With Your Love." There will be those die-hard rock and roll counterculture adherents who’ll feel that the Starship has betrayed the cause, whatever that might be. One must remember, however, that the Airplane/ Starship has a formidable body of work complete with stratospheric highs and the lowest lows, and their momentary upswing on the record charts is more than anyone could expect from a band who, by rights, should have burned itself out years · ago. 






Thursday, August 11, 2022

MIKE BLOOMFIELD PLAYS SAN DIEGO

 

It’s been mentioned by offhand wits that one’s younger days get hipper the more one speaks of them, an understandable response to a friend or stranger’s grand recollections about the times they’ve been near the famous, the legendary, the brilliant, the ignoble, the stylishly crude. But there’s no intention to brag that I had seen the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band somewhere between 1967–1969 at the Chessmate, a no-age-limit, alcohol-free coffeehouse in Detroit where local and touring folk, blues and jazz acts played.

This is more in wondering whatever happened to the memory of the band’s first guitarist, the late Mike Bloomfield. Bloomfield was a white boy, born in Chicago, from the suburbs, who was in love with black Chicago blues and traveled to Southside Chicago to witness the music he loved in the black clubs where they played: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Hubert Sumlin. I knew next to nil about the blues then nor did I know who Bloomfield’s influences and mentors were. What I did know was that he played guitar like nothing I had encountered until then.Biting, fluid, aching, and bittersweet, Bloomfield was masterful that night, a scrawny, jerky Jewish kid playing a black man’s blues with an intensity that was absent of cliché or recycled rockabilly riffs; what he was doing was something else. I was converted to the blues and the cause of lauding Bloomfield each chance I had with fellow music geeks. He recorded two widely praised albums with the Butterfield Band, Introducing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and East West. Just as things began to break for the band, Bloomfield did what became a predictable habit throughout his career, he abruptly left the band. He started one of the first rock-oriented horn bands — the Electric Flag — leading a racially diverse group of musicians through a variety of American music that include blues, jazz, rockabilly, and soul. A Long Time Coming, their first album, was well reviewed and again, just as things began to percolate, Bloomfield bailed on the project and wound up recording with Blood, Sweat and Tears founder Al Kooper for the Super Session album. Mike Bloomfield, though, couldn’t finish the album and left the project after recording half an album’s worth of splendid guitar work, with Kooper enlisting the aid of guitarist Steve Stills to finish the disc.And so it was, a genius guitarist who was easily a decade ahead of his time with regard to the art of rock guitar, leaving one promising band and collaboration after another, impatient, a walking case of the jitters. He couldn’t stay in one place too long.

My family moved to San Diego in the summer of 1969, during the Woodstock Festival, and, as it turned out over the years, Mike Bloomfield was a frequent visitor to the area during the 1970s, playing with an assortment of friends at colleges and clubs to promote whatever album he’d just released, or merely picking up a date because he still had name recognition even in music that was becoming increasingly corporate and predictable in a broad range of commercial releases. Bloomfield’s gigs promised the loose-fitting grit of the Bay Area style as well as a funky blend of folk, blues, jazz, and Eastern influences that ran contrary to the tight shoes record companies and radio stations were increasingly insisting musical artists wear in order to gain exposure. Bloomfield had done his best to sabotage his commercial potential by his erratic behavior and inconsistent performances, but there was something intriguing about Bloomfield’s live performances; you didn’t know how well Bloomfield would play, inspired and ruling the frets like the master he could be or so distracted and disassembled that his musicianship would make those unaware of what he could do wonder loudly and angrily what the big deal was with his reputedly great musician.

Apprehension over pending Bloomfield gigs was understandable, considering that his swings in mood and delivery made the interested fan wonder out loud which Mike Bloomfield would show up, the wonderfully expressive blues player who was one of the ground-zero white players to introduce blues, jazz, and raga and improvisational charms into rock ’n’ roll’s evolving instrumental style, or the mercurial bright boy who couldn’t stay in one place, stay in his seat, finish what he’d started? I’ve seen both in San Diego venues, hither and yon, the results different as old steak and the freshest, sweetest fruit.

It sorts of works out as a story of two university engagements, the night and day, the sweet and stinky, the great and the gross.

In the early 1970s, Bloomfield and Friends played a concert at the University of San Diego gym ,the first time I’d have a chance to see him live since Detroit; he was magnificent and everything critics and admirers claimed him to be. Energetic, even smiling, a change from his usually scrunched up scowl as he punished the guitar strings. The music consisted of up-tempo shuffles and rhythm and blues chestnuts, slow, heartbreaking blues and some instances of the fleeting jazz/raga improvisations Bloomfield introduced to the larger world, which was still living within the confines of Top 40 radio. There was always something simultaneously graceful and unwieldy about Bloomfield’s manner of playing; blessed with a fluidity that was uncommon in the day for rock-oriented guitarists, Bloomfield’s habit was to use everything he had when he sallied forth on a long solo. His slow blues would begin with the bittersweet and golden-hued tone of B.B. King — a sublime replication of the human voice. He would seem to lose control of his stream and have his phrases go over the 1–1V-V progression and wander into dissonance and near atonality as though channeling Coltrane’s high-register skirmishes.

After that, he would bring it back to the V chord, his playing deeper, with a long, searing blues bend sustained for several measures as the pitch increased higher in tone and intensity until he released the note and altered the mood again with softer, whispering phrases that brought the blues to a finely buffered resolution. It wasn’t all slow blues and bathos, though, and I remember how amazingly Bloomfield made the up-tempo blues stomp and rock under the snapping lash of his hot-tempered lead work, or how he displayed a knack for rapid, single-note runs during jazzier instrumentals, highlighted by the full, ringing octaves pioneered by Wes Montgomery. It was a good night for Bloomfield, a good night for the blues. Bloomfield, though, needed to keep moving after the show. He was quickly gone, seen rushing out of the gym’s side door holding his guitar case, brusquely brushing past fans trying to shake his hand or give him high fives or something stronger. He was in a hurry to get somewhere.

The memory gets blurry again recollecting another Bloomfield concert, a reunion concert not so long after the show in the USD Gym. I can’t recall the date, but I do remember what happened.The Electric Flag, the band that Bloomfield formed after his departure from the Butterfield group, leaving promptly after their widely praised first album. Moby Grape also played, a fantastically talented group of musicians that arose toward the end of the San Francisco rock era and produced two worthy albums. Moby Grape and Wow, before their rapid decline due to drug problems and member struggles with mental illness, were scheduled for a double-whammy reunion concert on a date in the mid-’70s at the UCSD Gym. There was a good amount of commotion among my fellow music obsessives, mad chatter over beers and bongs about how this would shake out. Two bands of short life spans but worthy discographies on tour together, attempting again to be relevant in a terrain that was rapidly forgetting the magic and value of the hippie vibe.

Moby Grape’s performance was, to be kind, something resembling an arrangement of mannequins dressed as old bohemians that held guitars while music was piped in through a scratchy PA system.A desultory display all around, the band sometimes came to life with a snappy guitar riff or unexpected burst of energy from the rhythm section, but there was the element of songs sagging in the middle, the musicians fall out of time with each other, of lyrics being forgotten, missed cues. The harmonies were ragged, a moth eaten weave of voices. That night Moby Grape’s fine legacy was a burden, a standard they couldn’t come to terms with.

Some of the crowd liked it though, but the applause and war-howls was as lackluster as the music. It was an open seating affair, which meant audience members found their patch of hard wood floor and made themselves comfortable amid the other attendees who had the same idea, to get as near the stage as possible and commune with the drum beats, guitar solos, and the passing of ignitable drugs. The lights remained low during the break between bands; I could see the cherry tips of joints floating in air, passed finger tips to fingertips, and the room was filled with the noxious aromas of marijuana reeking sweet. But the rule was this: stay for Bloomfield, the First Guitar Hero, the erratic genius of electric blues and roots music.

It was a pensive wait for the Electric Flag’s arrival on stage, as the squatting student audience, cooling their heels between bio chem exams and writing padded term papers notable for turgid prose and jargonalia, started a murmur of sorts, people yelling out “Bloomfield” or the staid and sturdy “rock ’n’ roll,” voices hoarse with the burn of pot. A Frisbee was being tossed about. There was the tangible feeling that one was a sardine in a can.

The Electric Flag soon took the stage, first the horn section, all proper looking gents dressed for the gig, alert and seemingly sober, and then the others, the bassist and keyboardist. Drummer Buddy Miles came on and took his place behind a large drum set, ready to let the world know again how it was he’d been picked by Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, and Bloomfield to handle the sticks on various projects. Miles was a good, not great drummer, able to adjust his rhythm and blues approach to a variety of rhythmic requirements, minimal but firm, steady, on the mark. He was not a Tony Williams, not a Mitch Mitchell, but he got the job done. His second biggest talent seemed to be skill at landing high-profile gigs with famous rock guitarists. Then vocalist Nick Gravenites took his position, an underrated vocalist and the composer of the blues standard “Born in Chicago,” made famous by the Butterfield Blues Band.

Finally, Bloomfield himself emerged, thin, lanky, jeans drooping and back curved, looking not a little like a guitar bearing pugilist approaching his opponent, sensing where the next punch was coming from. There was a good amount of applause and this time the gymnasium echoed with the fanfare, as much from the relief of the waiting as it was anticipation for Bloomfield’s artistry. The performance itself was wanting, though, not bad nor slovenly, but strangely professional. In the metaphysics of judging such things, or at least reconsidering the events years removed, that secret something was missing: the elan, the verve, the energy that comes from playing the notes in such a way that the nervous system lights up like Christmas lights and infuses the sounds with a feeling that resonates in a listener in areas of the soul that have nothing to do with the quality of technique. The band, musically on point, could have been employees gathered to collect their paychecks after a Friday shift. Bloomfield wasn’t having a good time of it and seemed hesitant to play anything.

Where the band would play a solid, Albert King-style blues requiring suitably mournful and sting guitar fills between phrases, Bloomfield was often silent or late to the cue, and his solos were tentative half the time, as if he were trying to remember why he was in the center of the stage in the spotlight. He did play a great solo on the band’s signature song “Texas,” a moment when talent and sensibility jibed and made something moving, a slow blues solo as very few people could play it. This was half way through the show and it made me optimistic that the rest of the night would ascend to the proper heights of excellence. One could here, though, electrical crackling and short bursts of electronic blurting from Bloomfield’s amp.

He was agitated; his face was a road map of exasperated furrows. Two songs later the band went into a slow soul ballad featuring Buddy Miles on drums. Bloomfield strummed away in accompaniment while Miles softly drummed and crooned the lyrics. Miles, who had a voice that was, say, adequate to sing in harmony but far too thin and screechy to take on the Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, or Wilson Pickett gospel-influenced style, had walked up from behind his drum kit and took the microphone from the stand, confessing to the crowd on why he needed his baby. It became an endurance contest but Bloomfield couldn’t take it. His amp continued producing extracurricular belches and his facial features vanished behind a mask of irritation. He abruptly yanked the cord from his amp and walked off the stage, not to return. The rest of the Electric Flag managed as best they could but by that point one could seem a growing stream of students, hippies, faculty and assorted bohemians headed for the exits, heading to the parked cars or buses that awaited them, wondering what happened to Bloomfield and if they could get a refund.

This was the deal one made with their admiration of Bloomfield’s guitar work — that one would either be in the presence of a master, an innovator, a man who changed the way succeeding guitarists approached the way they played guitar, or be witness to a burned-out case. Michael Bloomfield was found dead of an apparent drug overdose February 15, 1981, in the front seat of his Mercedes. He was a heroin user and suffered, it’s been said, from chronic insomnia, two things that might provide clues to the musician’s famed inconsistency. For all his breakthroughs in revolutionizing rock-oriented guitar playing with a heady fusion of blues, jazz, swing, raga and traditional folk-blues techniques, Mike Bloomfield was a man who didn’t stay with a project for very long, as his brief but galvanizing stints with Paul Butterfield and the Electric Flag and Al Kooper attest. Other projects, such his collaboration with Dr. John and John Hammond Jr. in the trio Triumvirate, didn’t go beyond one album and one tour. Another band called KGB with Ric Grech (from Family and Blind Faith), Barry Goldberg (Butterfield) , Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart) and Ray Kennedy (James Gang) was an attempt to put a “super group” together, but , again, didn’t last beyond one album. Bloomfield did, though, keep busy with his music, appearing on a good number of albums by other musicians, and releasing a steady stream of studio albums of his own where his best skills were displayed.

It’d be a little grandiose to maintain that Bloomfield is the Forgotten Guitar Hero, but it irksome to those of us in the early circles of fans to hear younger blues fans discuss the genius of Stevie Ray Vaughn or Robin Trower and the like without a mention of MBs monumental importance to establishing blues as the Rosetta stone through which all contemporary rock guitar playing comes from. Under discussed, obscured, perhaps, but not forgotten, not wholly.

One day few years ago I was at La Jolla’s Pannikin Café on Girard Ave., next to DG Wills bookstore, and there were the familiar plaintive, slicing, fluid riffs of Mike Bloomfield coming out from behind the counter. It was turned up loud, like it should be; I could hear the notes emoting from across the street as I waited for the traffic light to change. John, a fine young man with an angelic crest of long brown hair, was the manager on duty and the Bloomfield disc, 1969‘s Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, was his choice of play. I ordered my coffee, black, no sugar, no room for cream, and asked him if he liked Bloomfield.

“Oh yeah” he replied. He took my money, gave me change. I threw the coins into the tip can.

“You know how old this recording is?” I asked, hoping to brag with on
e of those back-in-the-day boasts that maintained that the past was better than what’s being sold in the current time. John just smiled and ended the conversation with the best response regarding the matter.

“Really doesn’t matter” he said, “it sounds great right now.”

Sunday, August 7, 2022

THE DEPRESSED BRILLIANCE OF THE LOST POETS