Tuesday, June 28, 2016

THE NUMBER FOUR/ 4 DAYS OF RAIN by the Flying Burrito Brothers

I'm on my holiday, deep in the Languedoc, in the South of France. Rain is the last thing on my mind and the last thing in the sky, altho' there was apparently a bit of a humdinger of an electrical storm the other night. I had been consuming and imbibing the best of the local produce and slept sweetly through. Since I have been away from my home all sorts of madnesses seem to have been visited on and/or by my country, and I'm not talking about the football. The temptation was to pontificate pompously on the foolishness of the small majority, but will bite my tongue; the foolishness seems mainly the arrogance of politicians prepared to gamble with anything for the sake of power, this time shooting a great big hole in their own foot, as they now have to juggle with an outcome never dreamt fully possible. Given no change there and such as it ever was, I am only sorry for laughing that you yanks might have a bouffant haired crazy in control soon. Not if we get there first!

Enough, here's the song:

What I have chosen might just seem to be yet another tired old song by a tired old band that tired old guys like me like to name-drop, as if there were a golden age when they were the sound of all for all, you know, like the Beatles or the Beach Boys. Or even, given most of them started off there in the first place, the Byrds. In truth the Burritos were more the anti-Beatles, probably bigger in Europe ever than at home. And usually, whenever they get a mention it is to praise the drug-addled rich kid "friend of Keef", Gram Parsons, dead way before his time. Don't get me wrong, I love the early Gram tinged version of the band, it's where I came in on 'em, but I hung on a bit longer, as Chris Hillman, ever the bridesmaid in all his bands, whether to McGuinn, to Parsons, to Stills, kept the brand alive until his thunder was stolen by Rick Roberts.

Replacing Parsons, sacked by Hillman, can have been no easy task, and the then unknown floridian Roberts had no track record to speak of, the Burritos flirting with just about every other ex-Byrd or Byrd-sidesman in their search, no small pool of musicians, and one they tapped upon for ever after.
Yet their 1971 self-titled 3rd album is arguably their strongest, a slew of Roberts and Hillman/Roberts compositions, along with a Dylan, a Haggard and one from the nearly but never quite a Burrito, Gene Clark. Most of the vocals are led by Roberts, with Hillman slotting into his familiar harmony role.
Just looking now at the track listing is making me tingle, remembering the thrill of discovering life with the brothers could continue.

I guess frictions were running high internally, as the band promptly then shed pedal steel whizz Sneaky Pete and soon to be an Eagle, Bernie Leadon. The next record was probably supposed to be titled emphatically, the live outing, 'Last of the Red Hot Burrito's', another absolute belter. However there seems to have been a U-turn in the skid pan, the recording being nearly free of reflective ballads, containing an enjoyable yet frantic hash of oldies, both Parsons' songs and standards, either as frantic electric country rock, Al Perkins proving himself a more than adequate replacement for Kleinow, or even more frantic bluegrass, with the likes of Byron Berline and Roger Bush guesting on fiddle and stand-up bass. There is not a sole Roberts credit in sight. Then Hillman left too, taking Al Perkins off to Manassas and Stephen Stills.

Details seem sketchy as to what happened next. With dates to fulfil, if no recording contract, Roberts took a rags and tatters version of the band on the road. I bought an odd double LP from this time, 'Live in Amsterdam', an awkward mix of Roberts songs and bluegrass battles. Here's the whole concert but the thrill had gone.

Roberts did a couple of solos, before forming barely country AOR band Firefall. The thrill remained gone. (At least for me as I gather they were quite successful.....)

Various Burrito bands surfaced, Flying and otherwise, usually with more promise and hope than delivery. I even bought some of the stuff, usually disappointed thereby, even the dream ticket collaboration, Burrito Deluxe, of Kleinow, perhaps already showing signs of the Alzheimers that took him, with Garth Hudson, tour of force keyboards man of the Band.

Finally, as it now seems compulsory that no band must ever end, please note this, the latest line-up. It may sound cruel but, no, me neither.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Number 4/Positively 4th Street

[purchase Bob Dylan Positively 4th Street]

What better transition from Streets to 4's than a song that has them both? This actually only came to mind after I had gotten part way into writing about summer, the Beach Boys and 409. (Maybe get back to that at a later time)

Dylan's Positively 4th Street dates from 1965 and comes with a couple of interesting distinctions: it was released as a single and only much later included on a Greatest Hits album. It has Dylan switching from his "folk guitar" to an electric. The studio band includes Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. There is no refrain that gets repeated, but it appears to be a message to someone who has thoroughly pissed him off:

You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend

A bit later, we learn that

You say you've lost your faith, but that's not where its at
You have no faith to lose, and ya know it

Here's trusting that you haven't lost yours. Have a great Fourth.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Roads/Streets: Baker Street

[purchase Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street]

“Baker Street” means chlorine to me. Over the summer and winter holiday in high school, we had two-a-day swim practices, one from 6-8am and the other from 3-5pm. In between practices we’d scarf down donuts from Burger Hut or burgers from Dairy Queen. We’d hit the mall and play video games. Or we’d sleep.

Exit the water and “Baker St” would be playing with uncanny frequency on the radio in the locker room. To save money on electricity, maintenance and maybe lawsuits, high school pools are kept very cold and are jacked with chlorine. Two hours in the West Bend natatorium and your eyes squeeze shut with a red crust, your skin burns and you can’t smell anything delicious: fresh donuts, pizza, oniony burgers. In hindsight, I don’t think two hours, much less four hours in that pool was very healthy. Neither is burning 3000 calories in a day. After the last lap, you’re in a druggy hungry haze. 

If you’re listening to the radio and lucky to hear “Baker Street” from the beginning, the flute, bells, cymbals and congos are all shaking themselves into the mood, all knowingly subservient to the alpha dog about to burst in: that massive, liberating sax. Then the opening glory is abruptly taken away, like a magician yanking the cloth off a table and leaving the cutlery and bowls. Gerry Rafferty enters with his modest coffee house voice and the song gets mellow and trippy.

The song wasn’t meant for younger kids as far as I felt, especially with that flute and those congos, but the sax belonged to everyone. Solos are born when words fall short of expressing the leap our gut takes. I can imagine Dave Grohl listening to and experiencing that sweeping leap many times as a kid like I did, the solo remaining in his head long after the song finished. (Iwonder if he played that solo on an air trumpet or air guitar) And with the Foo Fighters cover of “Baker Street” in 1997, Grohl tried to summon the liberating effect of that solo by replacing the sax and with a whopping, epic guitar. Vocally, Grohl sings almost the same as Rafferty, but hits an emotional chord that the cool Rafferty didn’t. It’s almost as if Grohl brings more backstory into the song, sees howling storm where Rafferty saw grey clouds. Grohl is more tender and tenuous in his delivery, especially for the lines “He’s trying” and “When you wake up it’s a new morning/the sun is shining it’s a new morning/You’re going, you’re going home”. It’s a reverent, deceptively sentimental cover but like most Foo Fighters songs, a little too safe. 

I only go home in the summer these days and for a nostalgic trip, I usually go back to the high school pool once. Not trusting the water, I still wear a cap and goggles. Haven’t heard “Baker Street” in the locker room, just the sax loop in my head, lap after lap.

(Posted on behalf of Jake, who will some day do his own)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Roads/Streets: Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley

purchase the entire album: Robert Palmer [Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley]

One of the funkiest pieces I know. It is a lesson in itself to compare Robert Palmer's version above with the original author's rendition, below.

I used to have a vinyl copy of Sneaking Sally Through the Alley; I used to have a large LP collection that included a ton of Little Feat as well. I'm pretty sure, however, that I purchased this on it own merit and only later realized the signature slide guitar that ties the two together. It was in New Orleans that British singer Robert Palmer joined forces with Lowell George to create the album of the same name. The song is the third in a rolling sequence without break that begins with Sailing Shoes, continues with Hey Julia and then on to Sneakin' - arguably one of the finest sequences of songs ever. You may also know that Little Feat had earlier come out with a 1972 album titled Sailing Shoes - the song actually being written by Lowell George.

The band for Sneakin' Sally is primarily the Meters, which included Art Neville (later one of the Neville Brothers), in addition to Lowell George and some slick mouth-harp work from Steve York as well.

Sneaking Sally was written by Allen Toussaint, who we sadly lost in the fall of 2015. He is also the author of other hits you probably know, such as Dr John's Right Place, Wrong Time.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Roads/Streets: Bleecker Street

Jonatha Brooke: Bleecker Street (Simon & Garfunkel cover) [purchase]

Bleecker Street, the New York City East-to-West thoroughfare that gives this song its name - once known as a nexus of the American bohemian movement and now home to Marc Jacobs stores and an apparently still-hopping nightclub district - is unquestionably a touchstone of art and culture: home of CBGB and Cafe Wha?, where Hendrix, Dylan, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor began their careers, it is name-dropped in lyrics by Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Fred Neil, Iggy Pop, Paulo Nutini, Steely Dan, and the title of an opera which won its composer the Pulitzer Prize in music upon its release in 1955.

According to Wikipedia, is it also the home of Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum and the restaurant Woody Allen's character owned in the movie Sleeper (The Happy Carrot). More recently, it served as the inspiration and name for a line of bags from popular designer Coach. Pretty cool, for a single street.

I've never been to Bleecker Street, and to be fair, I'm not likely to have reason to do so any time soon, unless I suddenly decide I want to hang out at its upscale eateries, or ogle Alicia Keys as she walks out of her stately home in the Village. But I've lived this song, pulled from Simon & Garfunkel sleeper debut Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., where it stands as one of just four original songs from a duo whose career would go on to help define the street in the wake of The British Invasion.

Bleecker Street never charted, though I'd argue it's one of Simon's finest, simplest compositions, a love song to the down and out that chills the bones. But its the cover, by Jonatha Brooke, which we've chosen to share today. Brooke's version recaptures the sweet ache of the dissatisfied outsider that so typifies the work of this particular place and sound in the distance between her inimitable voice and its ringing, high-production contemporary production; it appears on Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village In The 60's, an appropriately titled "various artists" collection of tender tributes to the great songs first written, performed, and celebrated in and around Bleecker that comes highly recommended, with beauty galore from Ron Sexsmith, Suzanne Vega and John Cale, Loudon Wainwright, and others. I listen to the album often, but ultimately and inevitably come back to this cut for the way it gentrifies bohemia without aggression, even as it celebrates its past - and so it is ever thus, on street and in song.

Roads/Streets:Tenemos Roads

National Health: Tenemos Roads

There was a time and place when the idea of a “supergroup” combining the members of Hatfield and the North and Gilgamesh would have been a big deal. That time was the late 1970s, and the place was England, particularly Canterbury. I’ve written in the past about the so-called “Canterbury Scene,” focusing mostly on the bands Gong and Soft Machine, but there were many other groups, often with overlapping membership, that created interesting music at that time and in that place. These musicians were, for the most part, profoundly talented, extremely adventurous, and mostly forgotten, certainly on this side of the Atlantic.

Hatfield and the North was one of the best regarded bands from this scene. After the usual musical chairs, its membership essentially solidified as vocalist/bassist Richard Sinclair (formerly of Caravan, later of Camel), guitarist Phil Miller (formerly of Matching Mole), drummer Pip Pyle (formerly, and later, of Gong), and keyboardist Dave Stewart (formerly of Egg and not the guy from the Eurythmics, but later of Bruford), and a trio of female singers known as the Northettes, Barbara Gaskin, Amanda Parsons and Ann Rosenthal. Gilgamesh was somewhat lesser known, was organized around keyboard player Alan Gowen, and included, among others, guitarist Phil Lee and bassist Neil Murray (later of Whitesnake and Black Sabbath). Both bands played music that was a fusion of rock, jazz and classical influences.

The new band, which came to be called “National Health,” was to include most members of both, but, of course, that was unlikely to work out.  Initially, Bill Bruford was the drummer, but he was replaced by Pyle, Murray replaced Mont Campbell as bassist, and by the time the self-titled debut album was released, Gowan was credited only as a guest, along with Parsons, the only Northette to participate. Nevertheless, they created a great album, if maybe not quite a masterpiece. Mostly instrumental, it is complex, interesting prog rock without much of the pompousness that has given the genre a bad name.

Leadoff track, “Tenemos Roads,” a 14 and a half minute piece written by Stewart, has a catchy opening theme and a long instrumental section before Parsons’ ethereal vocals enter. Prog rock songs often have spacy lyrics, and “Tenemos Roads” is part of that tradition. Something about a place in the stars, and history and men making war and fish living in the sea. Whatever. After a bit of spacy noodling, the song picks up again, and almost rocks out to the end.

I know that may not sound all that enticing, but trust me, it is really good, so give it a listen.

National Health released a maybe even better album the next year, Of Queues And Cures, and then went into hibernation, reuniting in 1982 for D.S. Al Coda, a tribute to Gowen, who had died the previous year of leukemia. And that was pretty much it from this particular combination of musicians, except for some live releases and Missing Piece, a collection of early songs featuring Bruford, Steve Hillage and others.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


The Dead are in my head a lot these days, the recent 5cd charity tribute, 'Day of the Dead', justly garnering a lot of media attention and revitalising my interest and curiosity in the band. Nobody born in the late 50s or 60s could fail but to be aware of this momentous band, but fewer actually have heard that much of them or have them on their shelves. OK, I discount of course the tie-dyed masses who can still congregate at the drop of a tab and can discourse eloquently, if carefully and slowly, as to the relative superiority between different performance, Oakwood 90 versus Santa Barbara 68, say, which, for all I know exist within the vast vaults of live available recordings, legit and otherwise. (Hell, I even know someone who felt this 80 disc box set an essential. Eight zero!!) I confess I have never really got the Dead live, or, for that matter, live recordings generally. Had I ever actually seen them actually play I guess that would have been a game changer, but their trips over the pond here to blighty were few, and I was at school when they played Bickershaw festival in 1972. Listening quietly and soberly to live concerts on disc or youtube at home seems somehow, sorry, such a waste of my precious time. One day, maybe, but I'm a studio guy. I like my records tailor made for the home listening experience, without the audience attention, duff notes and drum solos.

Like so many bands I became aware of in my teens, the Grateful Dead I probably liked as an idea more than as an actuality. Like Frank Zappa and the Mothers, they were a name I was happy to drop, establishing my dude credentials, or should that be pretensions, a band for a T shirt or a name check. I hadn't even really heard that much until I hit my country-rock infatuation. The initial releases of American Beauty were flawed by pretty dodgy stereo separation but I could still identify with the strength of the songs, so it was a delight when CDs ushered in remastered versions, and I belatedly put my wallet and my ears where my imagination and affectation had previously been. Yes, a decade or so late but that's me, always late to the party. My first trip to the U.S. resulted in the necessity of buying a Garcia T shirt and the latest record by the band, maybe purely so I could say where I bought them. Man. (Actually, Orlando, so maybe not so cool.......) This was 'In the Dark' in 1987, a patchy record but one that contains this, my favourite Dead song, one that even now I am thinking of how I can make seem appropriate to play at my funeral. (This is a habit of mine, making playlists for events I may not even be attending myself.) Since then I have cherry picked their studio catalogue, finding songs I like alongside one that, frankly, I don't so much, but an enjoyable trip anyway. (I am so not going to say long or strange within the context of this piece!)

So finally to the song in the title. I didn't get around to hearing this until probably only a year of so back, probably not until the release of this recommended double studio retrospective, which makes it last year. Sure, I had read about it, and was aware of the vitriol poured upon it. Indeed, the idea of the Dead do disco did always seem to smack of some bizarre desperation, and I hadn't wanted to hear the depth of the described disgrace. And I am 100% sure that, in the day and at the time, I would have been as horrified as the next hipster, sucking disco being anathema to me until I begrudgingly let Blondie and Roxy Music sneak some into my consciousness. But do you know, I really rather like it. In fact, I'd go further, I love it. Add the fact that it is an ear worm of such persistence that I find myself humming it all over the place. It is cheesy, cheerful and chock full of a chutzpah that, damn it, just ought to make the sanctimonious nay-sayers smile and celebrate. Maybe a bit like the shock of other icons and idols of yesteryear playing Sinatra songs, unthinkable in the day, but, you know, it works. Likewise, contrary to my above comments, I did take a wander through the youtube, browsing the live spectacle, and, if anything, the clip below adds to my pleasure. Garcia is smiling. I am now old enough to dispel the notion that rock gods should not smile during the serious ritual of performance. I love to see musicians enjoy their art rather than suffering for it. It's here

I mentioned the charity record at we started. It's too long, there are too many indulgent and lazy re-runs of lesser known songs, the sound is muddy and it is bloody brilliant. How is that my conclusion?  Well, probably because between the reedy vocals and wibbly meanderings there are out and out gems. In particular those featuring the National directly and indirectly shine, arguably unsurprisingly as twin brothers, Bryce and Aaron, both of that band, curated the whole project. But Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Orchestre Baobab, an afro-cuban band from Senegal of all places, throw in a couple of doozies. Even the reliably much reviled Mumford and Sons give a not half decent version of my second favourite Dead song, 'Friend of the Devil'.( War on Drugs take on 'Touch of Grey' hits my spot, too.) As for the version of my title song, thus by default my third favourite Dead song, this is by Unknown Mortal Orchestra and is pretty handy too, adding only a little extra funkiness. Below is their performance of it on Conan:

I'm am not going to send you to the big river this week, nor point you to the original recording. In the spirit of the whole, do some good, buy the charity set direct from the label.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Roads/Streets: Thunder Road

purchase [Thunder Road]

Roads ahead. Roads behind. Roads leading everywhere. I recall a story off a 60's comedy album called <Bert and I> wherein the humorist explains that "come to think of it, you can't get there from here".

Bob Dylan sang about roads more than once (On the Road Again and many many other songs that include references to roads  such as Tangled Up in Blue's 'by the side of the road'...." and this song that includes the lyrics "how many roads.." . A few blues-men sang about cross-roads and other roads. Seems like if you are a musician, you sing about some kind of roads. And then Bruce Springsteen sang about roads. Thunder Roads.

There's a certain - limited -  American romanticism in the image of Jersey streets/life - the probable venue for Thunder Road- it being Springsteen's home turf and evocative of the events in the lyrics.
In the late 70s Springsteen was one step short of rock god. Heck - most polls still place him at or near the top of their charts.  The <Born to Run> album  has been voted and re-voted as one of the best because it includes: "Thunder Road" , "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"  ,"Born to Run"   , "She's the One"  and " Jungleland". And the E-Street Band (apropos our theme) includes "street".

Thunder Road leads off the album. According to multiple web sources, the song has been through a number of revisions (the girl is now Mary, previously Angelina or Chrissie; now out of here ... previously ...) On occasion a solo/acoustic rendition, at other times, the full power of  the E-Street Band  in force,  the song may be Springsteen's best. There's more than one essay written about it: the Jersey kid who aims to "make it good somehow ... pulling out of here to win"

Aside from the obvious (title), there aren't many direct "road" reference in Springsteen's lyrics : "...two lanes...", "... dusty beach road..." and "savior to rise from these streets", but there are many about cars: burnt-out Chevrolets .. wings on wheels...roll down the window and more. The Internet informs us that Springsteen had a '57 Chevy with fire/flames painted on the body.

Sez the Boss: there's magic in the night