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.