Friday, April 24, 2020

Looking Back....John Mayall's Bluesbreakers - Early 1967 Edition

While going through a box of CDs in search of a great jazz CD I'd been trying to track down for awhile (Pete Johnson's Pete's Blues, more later), I stumbled onto a pair of CDs that I had reviewed a few years ago for Blues Bytes.  One good thing about having a little spare time these days is that I have an opportunity to track down some mighty fine music that slipped from the main shelf to one of my storage boxes over the past couple of years......doesn't mean the quality of the music is bad, just means I don't have a lot of storage space.

In 2015 and 2016, Forty Below Records released two volumes of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers - Live in 1967.  Mayall is the elder statesmen of British blues, having turned 86 in November, and some of the finest British (and American) blues-rock musicians served in the Bluesbreakers, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Jack Bruce, Harvey Mandel, Coco Montoya, Larry Taylor, and Rocky Athas, among others.   

John Mayall in 1967
Mayall is a fine musician himself, playing guitar, keyboards, and harmonica, but that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when looking at the all-star personnel who worked their way through the Bluesbreakers over the years.  It's no fault of his own and even at 86, he still manages to release an album of new material every couple of  years, and he remains a formidable force on the British blues scene.  

During the 60's, there was a lot of personnel turnover in his band.....there were some 15 editions of the band between 1963 and 1970, as artists moved on to other bands in the then-burgeoning British music scene.  

Peter Green in 1967
One of those groups, Mayall, guitarist Peter Green, bassist John McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood, were only together for about three months in early 1967, not long enough to do any studio work.  Even though Green and McVie were longtime members of the group, Fleetwood wasn't there very long even though he did appear on a few tracks of the band's A Hard Road album, released later in the year.    

John McVie in 1967
A Dutch fan named Tom Huissen was able to sneak a one-channel reel-to-reel tape recorder into five different Bluesbreaker club performances around London between February and May of '67.  These recordings were basically unheard for nearly 50 years until Mayall was able to acquire them and began restoring them with Forty Below Records' Eric Corne, finally releasing Volume 1 in April, 2015 and Volume 2 in July, 2016.

Volume 1 provides proof positive that Mayall has long been influenced by a pair of blues legends – Otis Rush and Freddy King, and both of these artists are well-represented in this set…..Rush with four songs (“I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “Double Trouble,” “All Your Love,” and “So Many Roads”) and King with four (“Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” “San-Ho-Zay,” “The Stumble,” and “Someday After Awhile”).

Mick Fleetwood in 1967
Other cover tunes include “Hi Heel Sneakers” and a powerful version of “Stormy Monday” that closes the disc, with some great interplay between Mayall and Green. There are also two Mayall originals represented, the rousing “Brand New Start” and “Streamline.” 

There's some excellent work from the band on these tracks.  McVie were as rock solid a rhythm section as they are today.  Meanwhile, a lot has been written about Green’s guitar work over the years and when I first started listening to the blues, a lot of folks considered him to be the finest white blues guitarist ever. He does nothing to disprove that statement on these tracks, offering up some exquisite fills and solos throughout.

On Volume 2, Mayall and the band work through a familiar set of ’50s urban blues, including a pair of Sonny Boy Williamson tunes (“Your Funeral and My Trial,” “Bye Bye Bird”) that feature Mayall on harmonica, a pair of Otis Rush tunes (“So Many Roads,” “Double Trouble,” in different versions from the ones featured on Volume 1), Eddie Taylor (“Bad Boy”), T-Bone Walker (also a different version of “Stormy Monday” than on Volume 1, this one showcasing vocalist Ronnie Jones, a member of the first edition of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated). There’s also a rocking take on the Lionel Hampton classic, “Ridin’ On The L & N.”

The Mayall originals on this set will be familiar to his longtime fans. The exquisite slow blues “Tears In My Eyes” eventually appeared on the 1967 album Crusade, which featured young guitarist Mick Taylor. “Please Don’t Tell” appeared on another 1967 Mayall album, The Blues Alone, and the churning “train” instrumental “Chicago Line,” has been revisited by Mayall many times over the years. Green gets a six and half minute instrumental, “Greeny,” to show what all the fuss was about back in the day and why he’s still considered one of the greatest guitarist ever.

Sound is not hi-fidelity for sure, given the recording methods at the time, but the tapes have been re-mastered to the point where it’s not an issue at all, much better than most “bootleg” recordings of that time. It’s definitely not something that should discourage potential listeners.

Early Fleetwood Mac (L to R):  McVie, Danny Kerwin, Green, Fleetwood, Jeremy Spencer
Green, McVie, and Fleetwood would leave the Bluesbreakers and form Fleetwood Mac, who were actually one of the most respected British blues bands prior to becoming a pop-rock powerhouse in the 70's and 80's.  Fleetwood and McVie continue to play with the band, but Green fell off the music scene in the early 70's due to mental issues and drug use, he resurfaced in the late 70's (making an uncredited appearance on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album) and has performed and recorded off and on since with others and leading his own band (Peter Green Splinter Group).  

John Mayall today
John Mayall was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame several years ago, and deservedly so.  He continues to release excellent recordings on a regular basis and also continues to tour worldwide.  These two excellent volumes give blues fans an opportunity to hear one of his finest groups of Bluesbreakers for the first time.  

Friday, April 17, 2020

A Couple of New Ones

One of the reasons I dove into the blues back in the mid 1980's was Robert Cray.  I picked up Showdown! in a music store where I went to college.....strictly on impulse....and never looked back.  While I liked all three of the artists featured on Showdown!, Cray was my favorite.  He not only played excellent guitar, but his soul-inflected vocals were the perfect fit for me.  I began following his career when he was with Hightone, followed him over to his major label debut (Strong Persuader), and kept up with him pretty closely until the early 2000's, where I sort of lost track of his particular reason for it, I just sort of drifted away for awhile.  In fact, I didn't actually return until his last CD a few years ago, where the Hi Rhythm Section backed him.  After hearing that one, I got back on the Robert Cray bandwagon once again.

A few years ago, Cray began a collaboration with drummer/producer Steve Jordan, who had produced the last couple of albums of Cray's I'd listened to, 1999's Take Off Your Shoes and 2001’s Take Off Your Shoes.  Jordan has also produced Cray's last three releases, 2014's In My Soul, 2017's Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm, and this year's That's What I Heard (Nozzle Records).  Since the mid 90's, Cray has slowly moved toward the soul side of the blues, particularly the southern soul side, and with Jordan behind the controls, definitely on the Memphis side of southern soul.  That's What I Heard is smooth, greasy Memphis-based soul and blues, a mix of covers and originals (five written by Cray).  If you're familiar with Cray's work, you know what to expect.  Vocally, he's never sounded better and his guitar work is as compelling and concise as ever.  It's obvious that Jordan brings out the best in him when they work together.  It's hard to pick a favorite track, but I'm torn between the mournful "Promises You Can't Keep," the gospel-flavored "Burying Ground," and the appropriately-titled "Hot."  Some 40 years in, Robert Cray is still making mighty fine music.

The first time I ever heard Sonny Landreth was while he served as guitarist on John Hiatt's Slow Turning album in 1988.  Landreth also toured with Hiatt as part of his road band, the Goners, and I got to see them perform in Memphis in the spring of '89, when they opened for.........ta daaaa.......the Robert Cray Band.  In the mid 90's, I stumbled across Landreth's South of I-10 album, which remains one of my favorite albums with its mix of blues, zydeco, Cajun, rock, and New Orleans-styled R&B.  Landreth is one of the finest slide guitarists on the planet and 99% of the folks who have ever heard him (he's a regular on Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival.....the shows themselves, and the accompanying DVDs) would agree wholeheartedly.  He is just awesome to hear and to watch perform.

Landreth's latest album, Blacktop Run (Provogue Records), finds him reuniting with R.S. Field, who produced South of I-10 and several of Landreth's other releases from that time period.  This new album features the same diversity that's present on Landreth's other albums......he's always had a restless musical spirit, but he's always blends a variety of styles together seemingly effortlessly....there's blues, swamp rock, Latin, jazz, zydeco, and Cajun music throughout this set, and sometimes most of the styles are mixed into the same tune.  It's wonderful stuff.  Landreth is a slide guitar marvel and a powerful vocalist.  and all ten songs are originals, from the energetic blues of the title track, to the instrumental "Beyond Borders," which combines rock, blues, and Latin rhythms, to the Cajun blues of "Mule" and "Lover Dance With Me" to the jazz-inflected "Groovy Goddess."  If you're unfamiliar with Sonny Landreth's music, Blacktop Run is a great place to get on board.  You will want to hear more, though

Friday, April 10, 2020

What We've Been Reading

When I'm not doing my day job from home these days (and being amazingly phone ringing, for starters), I've been busily working on CD reviews for the April issue of Blues Bytes, which will be out next week (if I ever turn in my reviews).  I've also found a fair amount of time to do some reading, thanks to this current quarantine and my time over the past year dealing with various family health issues (some of my own included).  I'll be telling you about some of those books today.

A few years ago, I picked up a whole bunch of books via Amazon.  Unfortunately, I didn't have a lot of time to read during that time, so they sat next to my recliner for a couple of years.  When I had spinal fusion surgery last spring, suddenly I had a little bit of time to read at night because the pain meds kept me awake at night.  Looking back, I was pretty productive over a short amount of time.

Over the years, I've read several books that covered the history of Memphis' Stax Records, the best of which were Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music (which basically started me down the road of listening to 50's/60's soul music and later the blues) and Jonathan Gould's excellent Otis Redding:  An Unfinished Life.  Robert Gordon's Respect Yourself:  Stax Records and the Soul Explosion expands on both by concentrating completely on the label, focusing not only on Redding, but many of the label's other stars.....Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Booker T. Jones (who's new autobiography is on my must-read list), and many others who worked behind the scenes in the offices and in the studios.  It's a great story of a record label who fought and scrapped their way to success (even after the tragic death of Redding in 1967), but sadly things didn't end well.  Gordon covers all the bases in this book, leaving very few (if any) stones unturned.  If you're into this brand of music, which sounds as timeless today as it did some fifty-plus years ago, this is where to get the story.

Speaking of Peter Guralnick and Memphis, when Guralnick was working on his two-volume bio of Elvis Presley in the early/mid 90's (I implore to read these volumes....if you're not an Elvis fan before you read them, you will be afterward), he interviewed Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame extensively.  He decided at that time that he wanted to do a book with Phillips.  Unfortunately, Guralnick began work on a Sam Cooke bio (also recommended) and Phillips passed away before he was able to begin the book.  Guralnick completed the book, Sam Phillips:  The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll, as a biography/autobiography hybrid of sorts, and it's an amazing read.  Phillips was a fascinating could see that in the Presley books, or if you ever read an interview with him (or saw his bizarre appearance on David Letterman's show in the late 80's.....I've never seen Dave so flummoxed) and that comes out in this book.  Guralnick was probably as close to Phillips as anyone could be, but he doesn't let that color his writing.  You get the full meal deal with Sam Phillips, warts and all.  Besides that, there are TONS of stories about the musical acts that Phillips discovered and recorded.......Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, James Cotton, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, and yes, Elvis Presley.  Even after the sun set on Sun Records, Phillips remained a force of nature, people still sought him out to oversee their recordings (John Prine, for one).  Phillips was about as enigmatic as they come while he was with us, but Guralnick comes about as close to capturing his essence in this book.

Slowhand:  The Life and Music of Eric Clapton is a biography of the guitar legend from author Philip Norman.  It was not quite what I was expecting.  In the mid 80's, I had read a biography, Clapton, from Ray Coleman, that really got me interested in Clapton's music.  It was an authorized biography, even including pages from Clapton's diary.  With Slowhand, Norman works around Clapton, the guitarist didn't talk to him directly, but he didn't stop anyone else from doing so either.  There's much more of Clapton's "Life" here than his "Music."  The main focus is on Clapton's often chaotic personal life with drugs, women, betrayal of friends, etc.....  The music takes a back seat, pretty much glossed over, so if you weren't aware of the impact of his body of work before, you won't know much more afterward.  Clapton has turned his life around in the last couple of decades and seems to have his act together now, so there is evidence that he has learned from the past (which may be why he didn't stop others from talking.......maybe it was therapeutic, I don't know).  I preferred Clapton from a music standpoint, but it's some 30+ years old, and there's always Clapton's own autobiography out there as well (which I haven't read).  If you want to know more about the man than the music, albeit from outside sources, then you may enjoy this one.  It did have some interesting moments.

I had a good idea of what to expect from Texas Flood:  The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan because I'd read Alan Paul's similar account of The Allman Brothers (One Way Out) a few years ago.  This book is an oral history of SRV, told not only from his viewpoint (taken from various interviews compiled by other sources during his life), but also from his brother Jimmie, other family members, band mates over the years, fellow musicians, and his closest friends.  I really enjoyed this format in the Allman book and it works really well here.  I was on board with SRV as soon as I heard a cut from his first album in a record store back in the early 80's, so I was there when a lot of the great music first happened, but I wasn't aware of a lot of what was going on behind the scenes during those years, though I was alert enough to know that Live Alive was a hot mess at the time.  It was so great to see him get back on his feet again with In Step and his later collaboration with his brother (released posthumously), then absolutely crushing to see it all stopped in its tracks at Alpine Valley.  It was pretty sad to relive all of that through the eyes of those who were there in this book, but in the end, this is about as full a picture as we have of SRV, the man and the musician, or probably will ever have.  I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who's a fan.

Well, the weather is warming up, so it's about time for me to reinstall my swamp blues/Cajun/zydeco collection on my iPod.  In further preparation, I decided to finally read South To Louisiana, John Broven's indispensable book on the music of south Louisiana.  I'm only about a third of the way through it, but I realize that I will be writing about this book in a future post, and picking up a few more albums in the near future.  In the meantime, I suggest any of the above books as a good way to occupy yourselves during these wild and crazy days, which hopefully will be in our rear view mirror soon.

Friday, April 3, 2020

What We're Listening To (Early April, 2020 Edition)

Your humble correspondent, staying at home
Greetings, fellow blues lovers.  Hope you're keeping safe right now.  Thanks for stopping by.  As you're probably aware, the blog has been mostly suspended for some time now, due to some serious family-related issues.  Well, things are still happening, but the whole world has slowed down considerably due to circumstances beyond our control.  Presently, I am working from home, and count myself fortunate that I am able to do so......lots of folks don't have that luxury, so when I'm not working, I have been trying to get caught up on several things, including writing album reviews for Blues Bytes......I am currently about six months behind based on the stack of CDs in my room.  That was one of the reasons, but not the only reason, that I suspended the blog.

The other day, when I was driving with my youngest daughter, we were listening to some new blues and she asked me if I was still blogging.  I told her that I was not, and she asked me why.  To my surprise, I really couldn't tell her why.  Several of the issues that were previously factors are no longer factors at this moment, and I figured why not start it back up, maybe just at a more relaxed, less involved pace.....fewer longer posts, slipping in a few little capsule reviews of blues albums new and old, and the occasional random thought......sort of like I had intended to do in the beginning.

So, the plan right now is to plug a couple of new releases each week.....maybe reminding you of some that might have slipped through the cracks previously while we're at it......just something to maybe provide you with a few minutes' pleasant diversion from the current madness that we're going through right now.  Hopefully, it will help pass the time for you blues fans, and maybe you can get hooked up with some sounds you might have missed otherwise.  Here goes......

Tad Robinson - Real Street (Severn Records):  I've been a fan of Robinson's since his debut for Delmark quite a few years ago (1994).  He mixes soul and the blues seamlessly with his incredibly soulful tenor and his underrated skills on harmonica.  He found a home with the Severn label, and this is his fifth release for the label.  Severn has a great "house" band that appears on many of their recordings, but for this release, Robinson traveled to Memphis with Severn keyboardist Kevin Anker and enlisted a few living legends (the Hi Rhythm Section (drummer Howard Grimes, bassist Leroy Hodges, and organist extraordinaire Rev. Charles Hodges) and a few modern legends in the making (Bo-Keys guitarist Joe Restivo, sax man Kirk Smothers, trumpeter Marc Franklin, and backing vocalist Devin Thompson).  If you are a fan of vintage Memphis soul, you know exactly what to expect from the music on this set, and Mr. Robinson is more than up to the challenge.  This is my favorite release of his, mainly because of the Memphis vibe, but also for his impressive vocals.  If you dug Boz Scaggs' Memphis release from several years ago, this one will blow you away.  There's not a bad song in the set, but my favorites are the opening shuffle, "Changes," the title track, and two really amazing covers, George Jackson's "Search Your Heart" and a dynamite reworking of Roy Orbison's final hit, "You Got It" that completely transforms the tune.

Another treat that I was able to enjoy around the first of the year was a fantastic set of piano blues from a young college student from Cincinnati named Ben Levin, who displays some jaw-dropping skills on Before Me (VizzTone).  There just aren't enough piano blues albums these days and even if there were, this stellar set would stand out as one of the best.  He's joined by guitarist Bob Margolin and harmonica master Bob Corritore on several songs, as well as his dad, guitarist Aron Levin.  The whole disc is just a marvel, with a dozen tracks steeped deep in the blues, half covers and half originals.  A couple of the songs have a New Orleans feel, while others have a cool after-hours vibe, and Levin's taste in covers is diverse, with tunes from Big Bill Broonzy, Freddie King, James Cotton, Big Jay McShann, and the Griffin Brothers.  There are also a couple of great instrumentals teaming Levin with Margolin and Corritore that you wish would go on forever.  In addition to his piano playing, Levin is also an engaging vocalist.  I am really excited for this young man's future and once you give Before Me a listen, you will be, too.

I've also had the opportunity to catch up on my reading the past few months.  A couple of years ago, my oldest daughter (what can I kids are hip!!) found me a copy of Grady Gaines' autobiography, I've Been Out There:  On the Road with Legends of Rock 'n' Roll (Texas A&M University Press), and I finally got the chance to read it.  When I started listening to the blues, one of my favorite record labels was New Orleans' Black Top Records ("Paving The Way To Your Soul").  Their recordings introduced, or re-introduced, many blues fans to some of the great blues and R&B artists who hit their peak in the 50's and 60's, some of which enjoyed a resurgence in their fortunes, thanks to Black Top's efforts.  Grady Gaines was one of those artists......he cut three dynamite albums for the label that not only showcased his thunderous tenor sax, but also other great artists who had faded into obscurity.  Gaines enjoyed a marvelous career, playing with Little Richard and Sam Cooke, among others, and leading his own band for many years, still going strong today.  This book is only about 190 pages, but it's packed with great stories.  Gaines is not the only one sharing stories either.....there's also input from his guitarist brother Roy, guitarist Milton Hopkins, members of Gaines' bands past and present, and other family members and friends.  Gaines tells a good story (with help from collaborator Rod Evans, who does a fine job) and is not afraid to shoulder the blame for issues when necessary, but this is an upbeat, entertaining story from a relatively unheralded music maker who's been making audiences smile for years.  Check the book out and track down some of Grady Gaines' music when you're done.  You'll be glad you did!!