Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Essential Johnny “Guitar” Watson

Johnny “Guitar” Watson was already a legend for many years when Steve Miller copped Watson’s act and song “Gangster of Love” and declared himself to be Stevie “Guitar” Miller. Starting as a pianist in the 40’s and early 50’s, Johnny moved to guitar in the mid-50’s and became a nearly instantaneous hit. This is a collection of recordings from about that time and has some amazing tunes!

While primarily drenched in the blues, there is a good amount of variety on this CD, from straight guitar blues, to horn-drenched urban tones to the almost doo-wop r’n’b of “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights” to the Ray Charles influenced “Someone Cares for Me”. Included here is a demo version of “Love Bandit”, which later became his infamous “Gangster of Love”. There is a definite (and intentional) New Orleans feel to “Give a Little” and a raw, rough and vicious blues guitar in what is considered a tour de force by the man, “Three Hours Past Midnight”. He is not a smooth and clean player like someone like BB King – Watson sounds like he stabs at his guitar as if he was pissed off at it. He retains a fluidity and speed and shows why he was an influence on guitarists for generations to come.

Johnny reinvented himself over the years, occasionally returning to piano, but always coming back to guitar, and hitting big in the 70’s with bona fide Top Five R&B smash “A Real Mother For Ya”. This is the stuff that clicks with me though – wildly fantastic blues guitar riffs played over a more polished, horn-drenched background. Maybe not as down & dirty as some of the best Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, but great nonetheless and spectacular guitar throughout.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Freddie King is a Blues Master

One of the three reigning Kings of blues is Freddie, who has a similar style and approach to the music as BB and Albert does, with clean but agressive guitar lines coming out of his Gibson ES335 and his soulful singing style. This record was produced by King Curtis, who also appears here and helped to write some of the numbers.

The packaging on this is really nice, with the insert folding out into the original album liner notes. Here, Curtis talks about highlighting Freddie’s voice, which he does to good effect throughout, but the man’s guitar is still the star. Spectacular playing on each and every song, with interesting licks and expressive voicings. A solid band backs him up and some songs add nice keyboards and cool horn lines from Curtis and others.

A highlight is his take on Allan Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life Woman” with its electric piano and slashing guitar riffs. Of course, this is probably one of my faves just because I am most familiar with it, but all of the tunes are superb, with instrumentals augmenting the vocals, some funky numbers, some slower tunes and a helluva lot of great guitar playing!

Oddly, I don’t own any other of Freddie’s albums at the moment, but on the strength of this one, I will have to remedy that situation!

The Black Crowes – Shake Your Money Maker

Coming out of the late 80’s, during a time when the joint aural atrocities of hair-pop-metal and hip-hop ruled the airwaves, the Black Crowes’ version of 70’s Stones/Faces/ Humble Pie rock’n’roll was a saving grace to radio and MTV. Thinking back, it is somewhat amazing that these guys hit big, since they were so different from everything else that was going on in the mainstream at the time (though, of course, underground bands were ranting and raving in local clubs throughout the world), but I guess it just goes to show that not everyone wanted the same damn thing regurgitated over and over, despite what the record companies seemed to think. This was proven again not long after this by the Nirvana explosion.

Shake Your Money Maker was released at the beginning of 1990 and their blues-rock became a smash hit with two number one singles (“Hard to Handle” and “She Talks to Angels”). Their success gave many of us hope for r’n’r again, since these cats were stylish, hard-rockin’, had great guitar tones and wrote real songs. This was beyond refreshing after dealing with the dreck of popular music in the 80’s.

The group’s 70’s/Stones influences are apparent immediately with the slide-rocker “Twice As Hard”, which could easily have been an outtake from Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street. A nice, rockin’ groove eventually brought this song up to #11 on the charts. In a similar vein, but a little more upbeat (and with great piano by former Allman Brothers Band member Chuck Leavell) is “Jealous Again”, which reached #5 on the charts and rightfully so – another super, Stones-y rocker.

A bit of a departure is the ballad-y “Sister Luck”, which has the feel of something like “Sway”, from Sticky Fingers – their influences are obvious, but they still right strong tunes, so it is more than forgivable. “Could I’ve Been So Blind” is a boogie-ing rocker with all of the right ingredients but not quite as memorable as some of their other songs. Still good, and certainly better than most groups were doing at the time, but I do think that the singles (all 5 of them!) were the best of the bunch. That said, “Seeing Things” was apparently a minor hit (though I don’t remember it being played) but it is a somewhat forgettable ballad.

But then comes the sensation of the album, their take on Otis Redding’s funky “Hard to Handle”. High-energy and sassy as all hell, they rock this number up and put their own mark on it. Kick ass lead guitar on this from Jeff Cease, as well, who left the band after this album.

Blowing away my argument about their best songs being the singles is “Thick’n’Thin”, a rockin’ southern boogie that just blasts out of the speakers! Of course, their biggest ballad was “She Talks to Angels”, which is sweet, effective, and prettily melodic and builds into some good power. Quite good lyrics, as well – this could have been about any number of women on the underground rock scene at the time, making it very relatable.

The appropriately titled “Struttin’ Blues” then comes barreling out with massive Humble Pie-styled power chords and Hammond organ, making you almost expect to hear Steve Marriot shrieking over the top, but you get the next best thing in Chris Robinson! I know I’m getting into a rut comparing these songs to the Stones, but with the open “G” tunings that Rich Robinson uses for the basis of his chords riffs, such as in the original album closer, “Shake It Cold”, it really can’t be helped. But, they do it so well – certainly better than the Stones were at this time! And they throw in a Faces-like high-energy rave-up ending that truly smokes!

The bonus tracks here include the fast-slide-rockin’ “Don’t Wake Me”, with its clever harmonies in the catchy chorus – not sure why this would have been left off of the original record, if indeed this was recorded at the same time. The other bonus is an “acoustic version” of “She Talks to Angels”, a different take on the song with piano instead of organ intertwining with the acoustic guitars that were on the album version and no drums. There is also an unlisted (and very, very, very quiet) track apparently titled "Live Too Fast Blues/Mercy, Sweet Moan", which is an extremely short blues tune.

Really, a pretty superb debut album which, along with Nirvava, did really help save rock’n’roll during the dark days of the late 80’s/early 90’s.
(Funnily enough, to my knowledge, they have yet to record the Elmore James song they used as this album's title.)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

These Crooked Vultures

Another one of Melanie’s impulse purchases on Record Store Day was the CD by this “super group” comprised of none other than John Paul Jones (Led Zep, natch), Dave Grohl (returning to his usual, and superior, instrument, the drums) and Joshua Homme from the Queens of the Stone Age.

Much of the record is similar in style to the Queens, Eagles of Death Metal and the White Stripes, as it seems like much new “alternative” music is these days. This experiment is highlighted by the superb rhythm section, though – it’s a shame that Grohl is no longer mainly a drummer since he excels at this and as a guitarist, he is competent, but far from exciting.

“Scumbag Blues” is a nice departure from the norm here, with its funky backbeat, cool electric piano by Jones and some exceptional lead guitar, which is missing from much of the record. Even the vocals here sound almost like Jack Bruce, with some Cream/Zeppelin-like chord changes. Good stuff! Some more interesting riffs and sounds appear in “Bandoliers”, with Zep-like feels and remarkable drums highlighting the tune.

The guys change things up throughout the album (“Gunman” sounds almost like a disco-infused Bauhaus), so it is not too same-y, but the basic formula remains – somewhat dissonant, a-rhythmic wackiness that all of these cats excel in. Not something that I would listen to every day, but for the style, this is where it’s at!

Dearly Beloved - Make it Bleed

We almost didn't get around to celebrating Record Store Day yesterday, but after a couple of drinks at dinner, we decided to drop by the local Zia Records and see if we could find anything (drunken record shopping used to be a regular occurrence for us in LA, but the shops in Vegas are generally a little too far from our house).

One of the things that Melanie picked up was this CD, based on the description that the employees gave (something to the effect of "a mix of 70's punk and Detroit rock") since she is always on the hunt for something new and different to listen to. For those familiar with older garage bands, this is a new group and has nothing to do with the 60's band of the same name.

With a modern, punk-ish, sorta noisy sound fronted by a female singer (with plenty of vocal contributions by the guys), the comparisons to Garbage are inevitable and not undeserved. They have plenty of other influences that they are not afraid to wear on their sleeves, from the Eagles of Death Metal and Queens of the Stone Age (some songs sounding almost exactly like these bands) to the White Stripes (which is now apparently the definition of "Detroit Rock" instead of the MC5 and Stooges, which is what people my age think of as the Detroit sound) to a blatant rip-off of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" as a basis for a song. 70's and 80's punk and new wave sounds abound, as well, down to a snippet that seems to have been taken from the Suburban Lawns' "Janitor".

Like the other bands mentioned above, the Dearly Beloved are modern-sounding and like some dissonance with their punk, but for fans of these groups, this is another good addition to the genre.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Runaways (2010 movie)

I am always wildly skeptical about r’n’r biographical movies, as they usually fall well short of capturing the excitement and energy of their subjects. While this one may be a little above average, it still does not really hit the mark.

Visually, the flick is pretty amazing. Of course, a lot of suburban Los Angeles has not changed much, but the staging and outfits are pretty incredible. Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Joan Jett is nothing less than remarkable – she has Jett down cold – to the point of almost forgetting that it is not Jett who you are watching. She is, by far, the highlight of the film.

Dakota Fanning’s take on Cherie Currie is good, though nowhere near the level of Stewart, but granted, Jett is a more memorable character to start with. Scout Taylor-Compton is a rockin’ Lita Ford and Stella Maeve does a respectable Sandy West but since bassist Jackie Fox refused to allow her name or likeness to be used in the movie (apparently there are pending lawsuits over several issues), a completely forgettable and generic girl was put in her place. I find this particularly interesting as Fox was the cutest one of the bunch at the start and her movie replacement does not come close. This also means that her quitting the band during (or just after) the Japanese tour is not included and so that shakeup, which eventually led to Cherie leaving, as well, is not explored.

The concert footage is spot-on, with amazing replicas of the girl’s outfits and stage mannerisms, though I rather doubt that they received rave reactions from their first (pre-record) shows on the road. And, of course, the soundtrack uses studio recordings rather than even faux-live sounds.

Michael Shannon does a pretty terrific job of capturing the sleazy Kim Fowley, who managed the band, got them their record deal, co-wrote the songs and produced their records. Kim was responsible for the band starting and most likely responsible for their break-up, as well.

I was never under the impression that Jett & Currie were even particularly close, much less lovers, during the Runaways career, though obviously, I wouldn’t know for sure! But, everything I had heard indicated that Jett would rather had fronted the band herself and somewhat resented Fowley bringing in Currie. It does create a major plot line for the film, so maybe this needed to be added.

Overall, this is a fun romp, though something is missing and I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. I did not come out of the theater feeling excited for rock’n’roll, as some of the best flicks can (even Pirate Radio did this for me). Still, it is good and well worth seeing and I hope that this inspires a new generation of rock’n’roll females.

(PS – another thing I found odd is that at the end of the film, where it gives a “where are they now” segment, it says nothing about Lita or Sandy’s post-Runaways careers, or even mentions West’s relatively recent passing. I know that Joan and Cherie are the focuses of the movie, but especially considering Ford’s port-Runaways popularity, it seemed unusual.)

Gallagher, Marriot, Derringer & Trower – Their Lives and Music by Dan Muise

This book gives an overview into the careers – and some of the personal lives – of 4 very talented guitarists who Muise feels have been somewhat overlooked in our musical history. Of course, anyone who is interested in 60’s and 70’s r’n’r is quite familiar with all of these characters, but they are not the household names that some of their peers became. This book is Dan’s attempt to make up for that.

The author interviews the subjects (when he can) as well as many of the people who make up the subject’s life, both musical and personal. He does not go into deep background of their family lives or their childhoods (though both Marriot and Derringer had careers very early on, which shows the depth of their talent), but tries to delve as completely as possible in the space allotted to each artist’s lifework.

Flaws are certainly evident in these individual’s nature, from Rory’s paranoia and prescription drug abuse (though he abhorred illegal drugs) to Marriot’s numerous excesses and even racism, but Muise is obviously a major fan of each of these men. He does not flinch from the defects, but does not dwell on them, either, other than to show how they led to bad choices and even, in some cases, to their deaths. But he will always highlight the music that was made and tries to understand and rationalize the successes as well as the defeats.

Rory was an accomplished guitarist whom I have never really followed, so his story was new to me and the segment on Marriot concentrated more on his Humble Pie days, which I am less familiar with than the time spent with the Small Faces, so I enjoyed both of these.

I was particularly interested in the section on Derringer, which describes not only his vast history as a guitarist (The McCoys, the Winter brothers, his solo work and him sitting in with such usual 80’s acts as Cyndi Lauper!), but also his incredible production work. I knew about him producing the Winters and some of his own solo work but never knew that he produced records like the Weird Al hits! He is a wildly talented man who has worked in many different styles and is still playing to this day (while he has become a born-again Christian he still plays his secular music in concerts).

When Robin Trower hit big after leaving Procol Harum he was generally considered a gifted Hendrix clone, who he admits is a major influence. In fact, I’m told that he has a standing call with the major music stores around the USA for any Univibe pedals that appear because this is what Jimi used to use! I was not aware that his pre-PH band, the Paramounts (which morphed into PH) was a popular r’n’b band that toured with bands such as the Beatles! He is another gentleman who has had a lengthy and varied profession and continues to play currently.

As a book, this celebrates the lives of these gifted men and showcases the problems and pitfalls that befell them as well as many of their comrades. One of the saddest things about the book is the number of people who were involved have now passed on. Still, a fine, informative read.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


Malcolm McLaren dies aged 64

Malcolm McLaren, the former manager of the Sex Pistols and impresario, has died. He was 64.

McLaren had had cancer for some time. His condition recently suddenly worsened and he died this morning in New York. His body is expected to be brought home to be buried in Highgate cemetery, north London. His spokesman Les Molloy told The Independent:

“He had been suffering from cancer for some time, but recently had been full of health, which then rapidly deteroriated. He died in New York this morning. We are expecting his body to be brought back to London and buried in Highgate Cemetery.”

For good ro bad, he definitely publicized "punk" and gave it worldwide attention.
More from Dan Epstein at Shockhound.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Billy Boy Arnold – More Blues on the South Side

I came across Arnold via a harmonica instructional video that a friend loaned me (thanks, Gerry!) and was impressed by the fact that he was taught by none other than Sonny Boy Williamson, and he knew other harp greats like Little Walter. So, I searched out his own records and found this one at a reasonable price.

According to the liner notes, Arnold was also the harmonica player on Bo Diddley’s 50’s hits, which I have been diggin’ lately, as well, since I have been trying to learn cool tunes on the harp.

This album was recorded in Chicago (natch) in December of 1963 and includes other blues giants such as Might Joe Young (guitar), Lafayette Leake (piano) and Jerome Arnold (Billy Boy’s brother, then with the Butterfield Blues Band) and Junior Blackmon and bass and drums, respectively.

While the material does not include any strong stand-outs, this is a solid record with quality playing all around. I wouldn’t say that this is essential, but it is a good representation of early 60’s Chicago blues.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Edgar Winter’s White Trash – Roadwork

I have generally been a bigger fan of Johnny Winter than Edgar as Johnny is more of a blues man and Edgar is more of a jazz/r’n’b artist. But, Edgar has had his share of rock hits, such as the massive “Frankenstein” and “Keep Playing That Rock’n’Roll”, which are terrific songs. But, as I grow older, I’ve expanded my musical horizons somewhat and have learned to enjoy more of what Edgar does (though still not everything).

This live album was recorded on a tour that highlighted both Edgar and Rick Derringer, who was just striking out as a solo artist, as well as back-up musician and producer. Winter does not have any ego issues here as he allows others to take the center stage as often (if not more so) than he does. In fact, the intro song, a gospel-inspired number called “Save the Planet” is just the first number to feature Jerry Lacroix on vocals – sounding exactly like an old, black gospel singer. Edgar doesn’t show up on lead vocals (he is playing keyboards and horns on this album) until the 3rd tune, their spirited take on Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”.

Derringer is given a substantial amount of side 2, beginning with his version of a song written for Johnny Winter, “Still Alive and Well” and including a high-energy version of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA”. He is joined by Johnny for an excellent “Rock’n’Roll, Hootchie Koo”, with fabulous playing by all.

Side 3 is taken up completely with the band’s very extended interpretation of the classic “Tobacco Road”. The basic track is excellent, with a powerful backing and Edgar showing his vocal virtuosity and cool sax chops. The guitar/vocal “duel” is fun for a little while, but the song does drag a bit before it reaches its 17 minute (!) mark.

The excitement does return on the 4th side recorded at the legendary Apollo Theater, starting with a humorous introduction by the unidentified host. I’m sure that the Apollo crowd wasn’t sure what to make of these (very) white boys, but the band seems to have won them over. “Cool Fool” is funky in the extreme and a fun, horn-driven romp. Derringer’s wah-wah introduces “Do Yourself a Favor” and combined with the horns, it makes this sound almost like a Issac Hayes number – cool stuff! The set (and album) concludes with a up-tempo “Turn on Your Love Light”, in which Lacroix sounds remarkably like Bobby “Blue” Bland and if everyone in the building wasn’t dancing for the wild church-house ending, then they were stronger people than I!

White Trash was a cool blend of gospel, funk, r’n’b, r’n’r and blues, so as long as you are not too dogmatic about your styles, there should be a little of something for everyone in this amalgamation! Good stuff!