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 clich├ęs 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

 

In 1965 Eric Clapton opted to leave a plum gig as lead guitarist for the hit-making Yardbirds to join John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. The musician was tired of the pop-rock slant of the Yardbirds and also tired of the relentless touring that the position required. A gig with Mayall would allow him a chance to establish himself. So began a legend, but not the legend you might assume. After offering the band’s the guitar spot to Jimmy Page, who turned it down, Clapton recommended Jeff Beck to become the Yardbirds’ lead musician. The legend I mean is the rapid ascendancy of Beck. After gaining success with the band and becoming a bit of a minor celebrity among British guitar obsessives, Beck left the Yardbirds after a brief stint, in 1966. Recruiting unknown vocalist Rod Stewart, drummer Micky Waller, and Ronnie Wood on bass, he formed the Jeff Beck Group and released his debut album Truth in 1968. 


In a fevered scheme of perfect order, Jeff Beck ascended to the top of the rock-guitar pantheon and remained there for the rest of his playing life. Truth encompassed the essentials of raw blues styles that were key ingredients of what Hendrix and Cream were doing; Beck turned up the volume, gave the feedback a more blistering edge, and framed his improvisations with brio and verve that remains unmatched. The guitar’s fretwork was sparks, fireworks, sirens, a loud swamp rumble on the low end of the neck, and transcendental banshee wails in the higher registers. The first album was, I think, one of the most influential (if not the most influential) pioneering rock guitar records of all time. It and his worthy follow-up release, Beck-Ola, remain relevant because Beck refused to become irrelevant. While fellow Yardbird alumni Jimmy Page and Clapton had their productive runs and each became, to different degrees, retired elders living off fading charisma and recycling their old licks, Beck famously pushed ahead, forging new styles of fusion, jazz, reggae, and the many varieties of funk and electric mojo, confounding and amazing audiences for over six decades with an output that revealed a musician of ideas. Beck remained curious in new elements of music-making and new ways of making bracing, unprecedented sounds from his strings, pick-ups, and amps. He was the guitar god I was seeking. But even the gods give in to the wear of aging.

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 1960s. At 78 years of age, he succumbed to bacterial meningitis. I had the very cool pleasure of seeing him three times in my 70 years of breathing, 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. Beck is a pioneer in matters of extending the vocabulary of an African-American vernacular and incorporating elements of funk, jazz, reggae, fusion and rockabilly into his particular mix. He 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 band’s 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 12-bar or 16-bar phrase, he did what makes him great.

Beck filled his solo slots with the gift of space—fewer notes, high-register bends, and unusual 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 Beck Ola, 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 the fuss was about. These weren’t records by an artist still making his reputation. Currently, his reputation was 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 had refined his style to the point that he was drastically essentialist in tweaking his playing.

Beck was always the most audacious of the Yardbirds triad, and he was easily the most unique of his generation. Only Hendrix rivaled him for advancing rock guitar, and it’s been our fortune that Beck stayed alive to add to his legacy. Even on most of the material, his improvisations were masterclasses in creating the unusual bend, the eccentric hammer on, the inexplicable quick and slicking note clusters that left you gasping in wonder. Beck fused his blunt and bruising blues essentials with styles that struck his fancy; he reinvented his style and manner of playing several times in as many decades, no less than Miles Davis. As with Davis, Beck didn’t hesitate to try something new and push the perceived limits of his technique. His musical fluency, his experiments, his routine switching gears, moods, grooves revealed a musician who liked to surprise himself with playing what he hadn’t played before. He was riveting like no other guitarist could 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.

The 2018 concert at the Mattress Firm Amphitheater was a revelation. I’d 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. Beck spent the majority of his career in a state of perpetual flux. He broadened his understanding of where a solo could go as the decades passed and his technique seemed all of absolute spirit, an undulating electric shimmer without seams, without stitches. Honestly, there was a period before this performance when I was in a depression that wouldn’t lift, and I had taken to lashing out at length at long-time heroes and icons, the usual accusation being that they were “overrated.” I’d written as much on a blog post, when I decided to trash Beck’s reputation, insisting that he was relying on old chops, that old age had slowed down the fingers. The concert was a revelation, though, even with a set list that highlighted a six-decade career; Beck’s singular genius was evident, very obvious. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine that this night was sometime back in 1968-69, and a younger Beck was lighting up the sky with fireworks of his own. It was a stunning rebuff to the gratuitous trouncing I gave the guitarist two years prior. After this show, I felt I owed the musician an amends for all the bad faith grousing about his work. His excellence never ceased, his innovation never ceased, and his playing remained the standard that generations of players are still reaching for.

I hope his tribute can be that amends.

(Special thanks to Liz  Abbott at The San Diego Troubadour).

 

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.