Johnny Costa: Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

November 15th, 2019

Jazz impressions of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

By the time that Pittsburgh pianist Johnny Costa met Fred Rogers, he was an accomplished jazz musician who’d led albums released by Coral, Savoy and Dot, was featured on Manny Albam’s A Gallery of Gershwin (a theme Costa revisited on 1994’s A Portrait of George Gershwin) and served as music director for television’s Mike Douglas. Costa returned to Pittsburgh in the mid-60s where he met and partnered with Fred Rogers in creating the music for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Costa’s college background in both music and education matched that of Rogers, and his fluid musical style (one that Art Tatum likened to his own) and imaginative arrangements were a perfect match for the emotional insights that Rogers illuminated with his song concepts and lyrics. Costa was a charter resident of the neighborhood, joining in 1968, playing live, adding improvisational continuity, appearing on camera on occasion, and serving as Rogers’ musical director until the pianist’s passing in 1996.

This 1984 release features Costa’s piano in a trio setting with Carl McVicker on bass and Bobby Rawsthorne on drums. As an instrumental jazz outing on the short-lived Mister Rogers Neighborhood label, but not featuring Mister Rogers himself, it likely didn’t sell well to either the television show’s preschool viewership or jazz hounds, and so the original vinyl release has become quite rare. Omnivore’s reissue includes the album’s original thirteen tracks, all written by Fred Rogers. Fans of the television show will immediately recognize the warm welcome of the opening “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” but as you would expect from a talented jazz musician, Costa uses the theme as a launching point for spirited improvisation. The same is true for the closing “Tomorrow,” which is given a heavier dose of optimistic melancholy than in its television incarnations.

Costa’s playing is florid, dramatic, inquisitive, frenetic, humorous and contemplative, mirroring the themes and emotional lessons of Rogers’ lyrical compositions. The yearning for reassurance that Rogers wrote into the lyrics of “Please Don’t Think It’s Funny” is equally well expressed in Costa’s introspective soloing. “Everybody’s Fancy” includes fancy runs, “I Like to Take My Time” proceeds at a jaunty stroll, and “Something to Do While We’re Waiting” is filled with irrepressible childhood energy. Costa is fleet-fingered and lyrical as he expresses through his piano the emotional core of each song. This collection of  instrumental treatments provides a terrific complement to Fred Rogers’ originals, twenty-three of which are collected in Omnivore’s companion volume, It’s Such A Good Feeling: The Best Of Mister Rogers. Taken together, the two releases highlight the musical and emotional resonances between Rogers, Costa and their audience. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Various Artists: The Bakersfield Sound

November 15th, 2019

Awe-inspiring anthological history of the Bakersfield scene

Bear Family is well-known to collectors for the imagination and thoroughness of their box sets. Their cataloging of American country music in artist-based collections is unparalleled in its detail. But even against that high bar of quality, this set is something else, as it draws a comprehensive picture of a scene, rather than a more easily defined artist or label catalog. To assemble this set, producer Scott B. Bomar needed to develop a deep understanding of the history, connections and influences that forged the Bakersfield Sound over thirty-five years. They needed to identify artists, producers, engineers, studios, labels, clubs, radio and television stations, and records, and they needed to dig deep beneath the commercial surface, to find the rare materials that spurred and cross-pollinated artistic advances. The results are ten discs, nearly 300 tracks, and 224 pages that demonstrate how the scene developed, how lesser-known players contributed to those who would become stars, and how the stars themselves grew from their roots. It’s an astounding achievement, even on the Bear Family scale.

Situated at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, Bakersfield is a commercial hub for both the Central Valley’s agriculture and the surrounding area’s petroleum and natural gas production. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drove many Texans, Oklahomans, Arkansans and Missourians west, with many migrants resettling into agricultural and oil work. The Owens family moved from Texas to Arizona in the late ‘30s, and Buck Owens eventually settled in Bakersfield in 1951. The Haggard family moved from Oklahoma to California in the mid-30s, where Merle Haggard was born (in Oildale) in 1937. Bakersfield became both a physical confluence of refugees from the Plains states, and an artistic melting pot of their musical tastes; a place and time in which influences could combine and grow into something new.

As Bomar notes in his liners, Bakersfield was really more of an aesthetic than a singular sound. The range of artists ascribed to Bakersfield (including some who never actually lived or recorded there) are as varied as the influences that shaped the city’s music. As Joe Maphis chronicled, Bakersfield’s honky-tonks – including the Blackboard, Trouts, Lucky Spot, Tex’s Barrel House, and the Clover Club – were genuine dens of dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music, and as Nashville softened its approach in the 1950s, Bakersfield hardened its own. As Nashville toned down the twang and added strings and backing choruses, Bakersfield plugged in electric guitars to complement the fiddle and steel. As Nashville sweetened the arrangements and slowed the tempos for crooners, Bakersfield picked up the beat and highlighted vocalists singing harder-edged lyrics. Bakersfield wasn’t necessarily reacting to Nashville’s changes, but acting outside its commercial forcefield.

Owens’ and Haggard’s legends are rooted in Bakersfield’s honky-tonks, where they developed and honed their particular brands of music alongside the many foundational acts documented here. Bear Family has cast a wide net to haul in field recordings, radio and television broadcasts, live sessions, vault finds, vanity recordings, alternate takes, demos, rare local singles, B-sides, album tracks, and a selection of hits, to tell the story of Bakersfield’s development, rather than recite the well-known riches at the end of the creative rainbow. The set begins with early ‘40s field recordings gathered in the Central Valley migrant work camps that were run by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The rustic vocal, guitar and banjo music of the camps’ residents was as important a cultural touchstone as were the physical wares they’d packed into the trucks and beat-up cars that carried them west, and its mix of influences the roots of the Bakersfield music scene.

The set moves to 1944 with a fiddle-heavy cover of Fred Rose’s “Home in San Antone,” and establishes radio’s role in expanding local musicians’ regional reach with transcriptions from Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and Elwin Cross & The Arizona Wranglers. The latter group, whose “Back in Dear Old Oklahoma” strikes a nostalgic, homesick note, included Bill Woods, who would soon become a pillar of the Bakersfield scene as a bandleader at the Blackboard. From these earliest days of the Bakersfield scene, the upbeat tempos of swing and boogie drove many of the original songs, with twangy steel, guitar and fiddle prominently featured throughout. Billy Mize is heard on 1949’s “Got a Chance With You” and Roy Nichols’ influential guitar playing on 1950’s “Baby Blues.”

Capitol Records and producer Ken Nelson – both key elements of Bakersfield’s commercial success – enter the collection with Ferlin Husky’s 1951 single “I Want You So,” recorded under the stage name of Terry Preston. Buck Owens first turns up at Capitol as a studio picker on Tommy Collins’ “You Better Not Do That,” and Capitol’s Hollywood studio was the site of Bakersfield’s first national hit with Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky’s “A Dear John Letter.” The song had been recorded twice before on local Bakersfield labels Grande and Kord, which along with Mar-Vel and others featured early performances by Bakersfield figures Bill Woods (who was so important to building the Bakersfield scene, that Red Simpson released a tribute to him in 1973), Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Billy Mize and Bonnie Owens. Many of the records most deeply associated with Bakersfield were actually recorded in Los Angeles, including the Blackboard Club-inspired honky-tonk of Joe Maphis & Rose Lee’s 1953 “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music).”

The early songs of home and homesickness quickly gave way to songs of romantic infatuation, love and recrimination, often with a forwardness that was disappearing from Nashville’s productions. The Farmer Boys’ “It Pays to Advertise” is surprisingly direct with the romantic boast, “when it comes to making love, I don’t leave girl neglected,” and Billy Mize’s “Who Will Buy the Wine” is scathing in its appraisal of a wayward spouse’s downfall. By 1956, rock ‘n’ roll was influencing Bakersfield’s players as Wanda Jackson’s “I Gotta Know” features a tug of war between upbeat rockabilly verses and a slow country chorus, Dusty Payne & The Rhythm Rocker’s “I Want You” has a rockabilly backbeat, Sid Silver’s “Bumble Rumble” offers up countrified skiffle, the bluesy guitar of Johnny Taylor’s “Sad Sad Saturday Night” is backed by Bill Woods’ piano triplets, and Buck Owens’ jangly guitar adds flair to Bill Woods’ “Ask Me No Questions.”

Buck Owens’ first session for Capitol as a leader included the bouncy 1957 single “Come Back to Me,” and his charting single, “Second Fiddle,” is also included early in the set. Owens quickly became a monumental presence in the Bakersfield scene as he dominated the country charts throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Owens had one or more Top 10 singles every year from 1959 until 1974 (including fourteen straight #1s from 1963 to 1967), with 1974 marking the death of Don Rich, and not coincidentally the year that ends this set. Owens’ catalog is detailed elsewhere, including three Bear Family box sets [1 2 3], and so the producer has cherry-picked sides that demonstrate Owens’ evolution as a singer, songwriter, producer and live performer, including the classic Buckaroos’ lineup first session on 1964’s “Close Up the Honky Tonks.” The Buckaroos were such a prolific, powerhouse group that they had a parallel career without Owens out front, represented here by selections fronted by Don Rich and Doyle Holly, the instrumental “Chicken Pickin’,” and sides backing artists who recorded at Buck Owens’ Bakersfield studio. The latter includes a track from Arlo Guthrie’s 1973 album Last Of The Brooklyn Cowboys, and Don Rich’s last session, backing Tony Booth’s “A Different Kind of Sad.”

Wynn Stewart also recorded for Capitol, but it was at Challenge and its subsidiary Jackpot that he waxed the singles most associated with the Bakersfield sound. Included here is his superb 1960 take on the Bakersfield club favorite “Playboy,” but his hits – 1958’s “Come On,” 1959’s “Wishful Thinking” and “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love),” and 1961’s “Big Big Love” – showed off an artistic range emblematic of Bakersfield’s many influences and musically adventurous spirit. Though not as commercially successful as Owens or Haggard, Stewart was highly influential, and he left behind a rich catalog (documented in full on Bear Family’s box set Wishful Thinking) that’s worth its own investment.

Haggard was in and out of juvenile detention and jail as the city’s music scene developed, but a late-50s stretch in San Quentin renewed his interest in a music career in which he’d previously dabbled, and upon his release in 1960 he began performing and subsequently recording for Tally. Like Owens, Haggard was both an artistic and commercial force. Though born in California, his autobiographical songs were rife with the hardship of Dustbowl refugees, and the struggles of outsiders. He first appears on this set as a songwriter and bassist for Johnny Barnett’s 1963 Tally single “Second Fiddle,” and he debuted on Tally’s next single with “Singin’ My Heart Out” and its flip, “Skid Row.” Haggard’s early Tally releases also included themed song, “Life in Prison,” as well as his first duet with Bonnie Owens, “Slowly But Surely.” Haggard’s transition from Tally to Capitol was meant to be heard in two versions of “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart” (one recorded for Tally, one recorded for Capitol) but the earlier unreleased Tally version ran into legal issues, and though described in the book, has been elided from the disc. A well-curated selection of his Capitol sides threads through the remainder of the set, and shows off both his commercial and artistic reach.

Owens and Haggard may have garnered the bulk of the scene’s commercial success, but the sheer volume of Bakersfield-related material that’s been collected here is astonishing. The Hollywood-based Capitol (and its Tower subsidiary) had the lion’s share of major-label Bakersfield success, but Columbia and RCA made inroads with Billy Mize, Liz Anderson, Tommy Collins, and others. Even more impressive is the wealth of local indie singles that paint a full color picture of Bakersfield’s deep pool of singers, songwriters and instrumental talent. Bakersfield essentially fielded a country version of the Wrecking Crew with a core group of musicians that formed and reformed in various aggregations to back singers in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. There are too many ace musicians in the crew to name them, but among them, only one regular female presence in Helen “Peaches” Price, a much sought-after drummer who played with Wynn Stewart, and backed Merle Haggard on several of his classic albums and singles.

Gary S. Paxton appears as an artist on 1966’s “Goin’ Through the Motions,” but makes his mark as a producer, both in Los Angeles, and for a time in 1967-68, in Bakersfield. His productions include the Gosdin Brothers country hit “Hangin’ On,” and a variety of singles that includes Leon Copeland’s cover of Merle Haggard’s “I’m Out of My Mind,” the Sandland Brothers’ tight duet “Vaccination for the Blues,” and the sly instrumental “Buckshot” by Larry Daniels and the Buckshots. Many of Paxton’s productions featured the inimitable guitar playing of Clarence White, including White’s unissued-at-the-time cover of “Buckaroo.” Paxton’s stay in Bakersfield wasn’t long, but he was productive, and cut records with Suzi Arden, Dean Sanford, Larry Daniels, Stan Farlow and others.

Each of the ten discs reveals surprises, including Barbara Mandrell’s 1966 single “Queen for a Day,” released three years before she signed with Columbia, the Marksmen’s 1961 guitar instrumental “Scratch,” recorded in Seattle by Gene Moles with the Ventures’ Nokie Edwards on bass, Roy Nichols’ virtuoso version of “Silver Bells,” songwriter Fern Foley’s original version of “Apartment #9,” Harold Cox & The Sooners’ “Pumpkin Center” offering some iffy rhymes in celebration of a local weekly dance, Herb Henson’s Trading Post TV show theme song, “You’al Come,” and songwriter Homer Joy’s original recording of “Streets of Bakersfield.”

The set’s final disc include live tracks, songwriter demos and work tapes from many of Bakersfield’s mainstays. The disc opens with hot live material from Buck Owens’ 1973 Toys for Tots show, featuring Owens, Buddy Alan, Tony Booth, Susan Raye, and the Buckaroos. There’s a treasure trove of songwriter demos and alternate takes from Bonnie Owens, Vancie Flowers & Rita Lane, Billy Mize, Red Simpson, Bill Woods, Tommy Collins, and Joe & Rose Lee Maphis, providing a behind-the-scenes look at how the first nine discs came to be. The disc closes with eight tracks drawn from television and radio broadcasts, giving listeners a feel for a world before records came to dominate media, and consultants came to homogenize playlists. Sadly missing from disc ten are five Merle Haggard alternate takes and a live radio broadcast that were last minute, contractual-dispute scratches.

As overwhelming as is the typical Bear Family box set, the breadth and depth of this anthology is doubly so. The panoramic view of Bakersfield’s music includes folk, bluegrass, country (and western), boogie, rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, swing and more. Each disc provides a terrific program of music, and the arc from disc one to disc ten is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The accompanying 224-page hardbound book (weighing in at nearly four pounds) is as detailed as the music program, with historical notes, artist biographies, and song notes, and hundreds of photos and record labels. With 298 songs and a running time of more than twelve hours, this is a set to live with, rather than just listen to, and one you’ll be drawn back to over and over as you gain a feel for thirty-five years of Bakersfield’s musical history. No doubt this will be on many country music fans’ holiday gift lists, and by all rights it should be on Grammy’s list too. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Fred Rogers: It’s Such a Good Feeling – The Best of Mister Rogers

October 19th, 2019

The timeless understanding and caring of Mister Rogers

Children’s entertainment is often filled with empty merchandising calories, and devoid of the thoughtful content that promotes intellectual and emotional growth. But that is not the case with the music of Fred Rogers, creator and host of the eponymous Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Educated in musical composition, divinity and child development, Rogers turned the meditations of his solitary childhood into a helping hand for preschoolers. While Sesame Street focused on helping young children get ready for the cognitive growth of schooling, Rogers prepared them for the parallel emotional development they would experience in new social situations. Rogers spoke and sang to children with insight and patience that acknowledged feelings and fears that adults had long since forgotten. He offered a helping hand through songs whose fundamental truths connected deeply with his audience.

His television show included many memorable characters and activities, but his music reached deeper. For those who grew up watching the show (or parenting children who did), the songs remain a sense memory that can instantly transport you back to an age of uncertainty and seemingly endless questions. His lyrics encompasses thoughts and lessons in friendship, optimism, attentiveness, confidence, vulnerability, perseverance, empathy, imagination, self-worth, humor, individuality and a myriad of questions, emotions and anxieties that children first encounter in their formative years. Rogers’ songs put a name to these feelings, and let children know that such feelings are both natural and shared.

Rogers recorded with a trio of musical director and pianist Johnny Costa, bassist Carl McVicker, and percussionist Bobby Rawsthorne. Their light, jazzy instrumentals typically stayed in the background, underlying the emotional lessons of the lyrics. Rogers released dozens of singles, EPs and albums, but few remain in print. Omnivore’s 21-track collection cherrypicks from four previous albums (You’re Growing, Coming and Going, Bedtime, and You Are Special), and adds five previously unreleased recordings, including the closing rendition of Rogers’ trademark show closer “Tomorrow.” The eight-page booklet includes an introductory note by film biographer Morgan Neville, and liners by Pittsburgh TV critic Robert Bianco. Rogers’ gentle manner may seem out of place in today’s belligerent times, which makes his lessons in civility all the more relevant. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Various Artists: Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records – The Definitive Collection

October 19th, 2019

Extraordinary catalog of a little-known late-50s Chicago label

In the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s, it must have been hard to make a dent. And if you were a local, nearly neighborhood-sized label swimming in the pond with Chess, Vee-Jay, Brunswick and Delmark, you were lucky not to get eaten. Chess did manage to take a few bites out of Narvel Eatmon and his short-lived Bea & Baby label, but Eatmon’s life-long fealty to the blues, and his hustle as an entrepreneur, created a small but important catalog of blues-centered singles. By the time of Eatmon’s passing in 1991, Bea & Baby and its subsidiaries had been dormant for many years, and fifteen years further on, Michael Frank, who’d befriended Eatmon and helped him develop licensing deals, bought the catalog from Eatmon’s widow. The “label” at that point consisted primarily of dead stock 45s, paperwork, and most critically, publishing rights, but not many master tapes. So a project was begun, and thirteen years later, delivers this extraordinary four-disc labor of love documenting Eatmon’s original labors of love.

Narvel Eatmon, better known in his adopted Chicago as Cadillac Baby, was a colorful man living in a colorful place at a colorful time. Eatmon developed his love of the blues as a child in his native Mississippi, but was drawn to Chicago in the mid-1940s by his musical passion. He quickly established himself as an impresario on the city’s South Side with Cadillac Baby’s Show Lounge, and his presentation of local and touring acts grew into the Bea & Baby record label. The label was most active in 1959 and 1960, recording both nationally known and local artists, and though several sides had the potential to break nationally, Eatmon’s lack of record industry background, and external pressures (which often seemed to include the machinations of Leonard Chess) undercut the label’s commercial success. Eatmon continued to issues a couple of sides a year into the mid-60s, and sporadically into the early ‘70s, but his dreams always seemed to remain bigger than his actual sales.

The label came to life in 1959 with Eddie Boyd’s “I’m Commin’ Home,” which together with its up-tempo flip “Thank You Baby,” garnered favorable, single sentence reviews in Cashbox. Both sides include the solid bottom end of Rob Carter’s bass and strong solos by saxophonist Ronald Wilson, the B-side also includes a piano playout from Boyd. Many of Bea & Baby’s singles featured the sort of eight-bar blues you’d expect of a Chicago record label, but early on Eatmon also produced jump blues, teen doo-wop and Latin-tinged numbers, and in later years he took to releasing gospel on his Miss subsidiary. The catalog also features several interesting oddities, including Clyde Lasley’s provocative “Santa Came Home Drunk.” the Daylighters’ vocal-overdubbed re-release of Eddie Boyd’s “Come Home,” and T. Valentine’s sui generis “Little Lu-Lu-Frog,” a single whose style seems to foreshadow the free-form freak outs of Red Krayola.

The label’s biggest hit, Bobby Saxton’s “Trying’ to Make a Livin’,” was licensed to Chess for reissue on their Checker subsidiary, but even with national distribution, it couldn’t lift the fortunes of Saxton or Bea & Baby. Cut while Saxton was fronting Earl Hooker’s band, the single features Hooker’s inimitable guitar, while the instrumental B-side includes fine playing from pianist Tall Paul Hankins, and sax players Ernest Cotton and Oett Mallard. Eatmon would tangle with Leonard Chess again when Tony Gideon’s “Wa Too Si” was reportedly spied in Chess’ pressing plant, scooped by the Vibrations’ “Watusi,” and bullied into being released on the Chess label as “Watcha Gonna Do.”

Disc two opens with Hound Dog Taylor’s first recording, “My Baby’s Coming Home,” waxed at the age of 43, a full decade before the Alligator label was launched to release his debut album. Taylor’s twangy slide is featured on both sides of the single, with the minimal lyrics of the uptempo flip leaving extra room for soloing. Eatmon continued to explore the boundaries of the blues with Little Mac’s doo-wop (with a harmonica solo!) B-side “Broken Heart,” Phil Sampson’s late-night croon “It’s So Hard,” Sampson’s eponymous jump tune with Singing Sam, Andre Williams’ New Orleans-influenced “I Still Love You,” Kirk Taylor’s string-lined “This World,” Tall Paul Hankins & The Hudson Brothers’ remarkable organ, guitar, bass and drum grooves on  “Joe’s House Rent Party,” and “Red Lips,” and the late-60s soul stylings of The Chances.

Had Eatmon been making a bigger commercial push for his label, one might think he was just throwing singles at the market to see what would stick, but the range and quality of the material suggests he was indulging his musical taste, rather than trying to triangulate hits. The results may not have been good for the label’s bottom line, but the records, A’s and B’s alike, harbor a sense of purpose that resounds with artistry and adventurousness over calculation. Eatmon describes his 1961 gospel releases as having been a market consideration, but the fervor of these sides indicates that whether or not they were going to be the ticket to commercial salvation, they were going to be infused with the artists’ faith.

The set’s 128-page hardcover book opens with an interview that Living Blues co-founder Jim O’Neal conducted with Eatmon in 1971. “Interview” might be a misleading description, since O’Neal seems to have asked “tell me how you got into the music business,” and Eatmon proceeds to tell his colorful life story with little more prompting or interruption. Eatmon also tells stories in audio tracks that are sprinkled throughout the set. O’Neal’s liners and Michael Frank’s producer’s notes are detailed and heartfelt, telling Eatmon’s colorful story as they also tell the stories of their relationships with Eatmon. Bill Dahl’s artist profiles and Robert M. Marovich’s gospel notes fill out a comprehensive view of the riches contained in these four discs. This revival of the Bea & Baby catalog was clearly a passion project for all concerned, and it’s sure to stir the passions of blues collectors everywhere. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Earwig Music’s Home Page

The Rain Parade: Emergency Third Rail Power Trip

October 2nd, 2019

Red-and-yellow vinyl reissue of Paisley Underground classic

1982 and 1983 were incredibly fruitful years for the Paisley Underground, seeing the release of the Three O’Clock’s Baroque Hoedown and Sixteen Tambourines, the Dream Syndicate’s EP and Days of Wine and Roses, the Bangles self-titled EP, and Green on Red’s EP and Gravity Talks. Standing tall among these neo-psych icons was the Rain Parade’s first full length, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip. The group’s dreamy, somnambulistic psychedelia was foreshadowed by their 1982 single “What She’s Done to Your Mind,” but its impact at album length was something entirely greater, as the group really hit the nerve at the root of the Paisley Underground. The scene rapidly outgrew its foundations as the bands explored individual directions; The Dream Syndicate signed with A&M and recorded a muscular sophomore album that bore little resemblance to their debut, the Bangles signed with Columbia and began the makeover that sanded off the folk roots of their rock, the Three O’Clock signed with IRS and recorded an album in Berlin that was less flower powered, and Green on Red transitioned into Americana. Only the Rain Parade, sans co-founder David Roback, continued to till soil similar to their debut, releasing the EP Explosions in the Glass Palace in 1984. Real Gone’s reissue returns the album to its original vinyl format for the first time in more than thirty years, reproducing the original cover art and U.S. track lineup (omitting the non-U.S. bonus track “Look Both Ways”), and enticing collectors with red-and-yellow starburst vinyl. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Jefferson Airplane: Woodstock – Sunday August 17, 1969

September 28th, 2019

Limited edition 50th anniversary 3-LP colored vinyl reissue of Jefferson Airplane’s complete Woodstock performance

Although the Jefferson Airplane was one of the most famous groups in the world in 1969, their presence at Woodstock has long been rendered something of a festival and career footnote. The problem wasn’t with their performance, but the short-shrift they gave themselves in the film (in which they didn’t appear) and soundtrack albums (on which they appeared for only one track on the initial triple-LP, and two tracks on the follow-up Woodstock II). Originally scheduled to headline the festival’s Saturday night lineup, weather and logistics pushed the performance to early Sunday morning, by which point the band and the crowd should by all rights have been totally exhausted. But the Airplane took off to provide a long, powerful set of what Grace Slick called “morning maniac music,” and in retrospect (that is, once the acid wore off) it was a much stronger performance than they imagined they’d given.

The set list includes material from the band’s three studio albums then-to-date, as well as three songs from the then-soon-to-be-released Volunteers, the latter including the rarely performed “Eskimo Blue Day” and a lengthy version of the Crosby, Stills and Kantner co-write “Wooden Ships.” Jorma Kaukonen sings “Uncle Sam Blues” and “Come Back Baby,” the band jams at length on “The Ballad Of You & Me & Pooneil,” and closes out with a strong encore of “White Rabbit” and Crown of Creation’s “The House At Pooneil Corners.” Although a few more of the Woodstock tracks appeared on 1992’s Jefferson Airplane Loves You and 1994s Woodstock – Three Days of Peace and Music, it wasn’t until 2009’s Woodstock Experience that the full set was delivered. That full set is now delivered in grand fashion as a double-gatefold, 3-LP set on “blue dawn” colored wax, with photos by Henry Diltz and new liners by Richie Unterberger. This is a sweet collectible for the band’s fans. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Los Straitjackets: Complete Christmas Songbook

September 28th, 2019

A brightly wrapped gift of guitar-driven Christmas classics

Yep Roc’s twenty-seven track anthology compiles all of the Christmas-related titles that Los Straitjackets have released across 2002’s Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets, 2009’s Yuletide Beat, 2011’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” single, and Yep Roc’s 2007 collection Oh Santa!, and adds a bonus live version of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus & Lucy” recorded on the band’s 2015 tour with Nick Lowe. The playlist is dominated by ‘60s-styled guitar-driven instrumental versions of Christmas classics, often cleverly augmented by motifs borrowed from “La Bamba,” “Pipeline,” “Walk Don’t Run,” “Misirlou,” “I Fought the Law,” “Buckaroo,” “Sing, Sing, Sing” and other iconic tunes. There are playful Latin beats on  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “O Tannenbaum,” Memphis soul on “Joy to the World” and power-pop on “Groovy Old Saint Nick.” The band’s three originals include two instrumentals, “Christmas in Las Vegas” and “Christmas Weekend,” and the album’s only vocal, “Holiday Twist.” This is a creative collection of Christmas tunes that will spruce up your holidays. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Los Straitjackets’ Home Page

The Archies: The Definitive Greatest Hits & More!

September 25th, 2019

Limited edition, blue vinyl reissue of iconic bubblegum music

The origin story for this cartoon band suggests that having lost artistic control of the Monkees, music impresario Don Kirshner happened upon the idea of a purely fictional group – one that could have no artistic aspirations of its own and, to quote Kirshner, “won’t talk back.” And thus was born the musical career of the long-time Archie comic book characters on a series of singles and albums that peaked with the chart-topping “Sugar, Sugar.” Kirshner’s reputation as a publisher with golden ears served the studio musicians who played and voiced the Archies, drawing upon material from Jeff Barry, Andy Kim, Bobby Bloom, Mark Barkan and Ritchie Adams. Real Gone’s 14-track vinyl LP features five of the group’s U.S. charting singles (omitting only 1970’s “Together We Two”), and includes material from the group’s first four albums (omitting tracks from 1971’s This is Love).

The Archies’ music may have been designed primarily for pre-teens, but the records were backed by talented songwriters, producers and studio musicians, and fronted by the infectious vocals of Ron Dante. Dante was a jingle singer whose voice perfectly fueled the sunshine vibe and puppy love singalongs that made up much of the Archies’ catalog. The group’s third single, “Sugar Sugar,” is rightly considered the national anthem of bubblegum music, but there are many more gems in the catalog. “Jingle Jangle” and “Get on the Line” show off touches of soul, “Inside Out – Upside Down” plays like a nursery rhyme and “Archies Party” rocks out in an ecstatic, pre-teen way. Though often denigrated for their market calculation, there is real craft in these records, with hooks that remain sharp. Real Gone’s vinyl-only release is a nice throwback to the Calendar and Kirshner originals, and a nice collectible for fans. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ: Turn On, Tune In

September 25th, 2019

The latest NRBQ lineup tears it up live in the studio

More than fifty years from its founding, NRBQ is as much an ethos as it is a band. Rebuilt by founding member Terry Adams after a seven-year hiatus, the current lineup carries on the earlier group’s unique blend of rock, pop, rockabilly, boogie-woogie, jazz, blues and other American music forms, both in the studio and, as was the original band’s hallmark, on stage. Performing for SiriusXM in 2015 and New Jersey’s WFMU in 2017, the band’s latest lineup (which added drummer John Perrin in 2015) works through a typically diverse and impromptu set that leans heavily on material penned by Adams. The set list sidesteps classic ‘Q material written by former bassist Joey Spampinato and guitarist Al Anderson, but does reach back to the group’s early days, and stretches out with the sort of brilliantly selected covers the band is known for.

Making up the setlist in the moment has long been Adams’ job, and the nightly change in the band’s live performances has kept NRBQ from devolving into a nostalgic set of charts. The opening cover of Goffin & King’s “Don’t Ever Change” is emblematic of NRBQ’s quirky reach, as they tackle (apparently for the first time in this very performance) an obscure UK hit for the post-Buddy Holly Crickets. Perhaps they keyed off of the Beatles 1963 cover or Brinsley Schwarz’s version a decade later, but its lead harmony and polite drum rolls remain as charming today as they were in 1962. The set’s other covers aren’t as obscure, though they’re just as interesting. The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” features bassist Casey McDonough reprising the falsetto vocal he sang on Brian Wilson’s fiftieth anniversary tour of Pet Sounds, Johnny & The Hurricanes’ 1959 instrumental hit “Red River Rock” features drummer John Perrin on lead organ, and Jimmie Driftwood’s “The Wilderness Road” includes a harmonica solo that’s as high and lonesome as the song’s lyrics.

Closer to home, the band resurrects favorites and obscurities from friends, family and former members. Guitarist Scott Ligon’s first recorded his older brother Chris’ twee “Florida” in 2005, and Chris recorded the song again in 2011 with his group the Flat Five. The harmony lead vocal is filled with yearning for America’s vacation land and a wordless hook of vocal jazz syllables. Terry Adams’ brother Donn is represented by the bombastic, incredibly rare Dickens’ B-side “Don’t Talk About My Music,” a song whose NRBQ story has to be read to be believed. Reaching back to the band’s early days, Steve Ferguson’s “Step Aside” recalls the group’s 1970 outing with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins, Terry Adams’ “Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard” provides a prog-rock tribute to the Three Stooges, a trio of tunes from 1977’s All Hopped Up includes the sweet “It Feels Good,” and the WFMU show closes with Adams’ ode to Southern comfort food, “RC Cola and a Moon Pie.”

More recent releases are represented by material from Adams’ solo albums, and the resurrected group’s albums Keep This Love Goin’ and Brass Tacks. Long-time WFMU DJ Bob Brainen provide liner and song notes, and the CD and LP include a professionally shot DVD of the WFMU performance. Those still lamenting the disbanding of the classic lineup of Adams, Anderson, Ardolino and Spampinato, may find it sacreligious for this new quartet to have adopted the NRBQ name, but they hold the torch high, and carry on the marriage of studied musicianship and musical whimsicality that’s long defined the band. Their new music plays well with the deep catalog entries, and the covers are lovingly selected and deftly executed. There are few bands that have been this fun for this long, and the latest lineup definitely keeps the love goin’. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ’s Home Page

OST: Alice’s Restaurant

August 23rd, 2019

Expanded reissue of the “Alice’s Restaurant” soundtrack

Two years after Arlo Guthrie debuted with Alice’s Restaurant, and the surprisingly wide popularity of its eighteen-minute title track, his comedic anti-authoritarian talking blues became a movie and a soundtrack album. In its original incarnation, the soundtrack was anchored by a two-part re-recording of the title track, but its studio setting seemed to sap the satirical audacity of the debut album’s live take. More interesting were the tracks recorded especially for the soundtrack, including Guthrie’s folk-styled instrumentals “Traveling Music” and “Trip to the City,” the meditative “Crash Pad Improvs,” and music supervisor Garry Sherman’s bluesy “Harps & Marriage.” Two vocal tracks include Al Schackman’s performance of Guthrie and Sherman’s “You’re a Fink,” and Tigger Outlaw’s poignant acoustic cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Songs to Aging Children.”

The original release was augmented with eleven bonus tracks for Rykodisc’s out-of-print 1998 reissue, expanding upon the soundtrack elements created by Guthrie and Sherman. Featured among the bonuses is instrumental continuity written and arranged by Guthrie, including the Hawaiiana “Big City Garbage” and the rock ‘n’ roll “Wedding Festivities,” and a pair of Woody Guthrie tunes sung by Pete Seeger (“Pastures of Plenty”), and Seeger with the younger Guthrie (“Car Song”). All eleven of these soundtrack bonuses are included on Omnivore’s 2019 reissue, and are augmented with a previously unreleased 24-minute rendition of “Alice’s Restaurant” that Guthrie performed in on Philadelphia folk radio legend Gene Shay’s program in 1968.

Although it didn’t appear in the film, the newly released performance reveals the folk tradition to which “Alice’s Restaurant” belongs, as Guthrie reinvents the song with lyrics that tell a shaggy, surrealistic tale of multicolor rainbow roaches and international nuclear war. In addition to the underlying guitar score, Guthrie leveraged many of the comedic vocal intonations that made the original “Massacree” so memorable. The new story hasn’t the deep cultural resonance of the original, but it does shed an interesting side light, and the short talk segment that follows provides a time capsule of late-60s FM radio. Omnivore’s reissue includes liner notes by Lee Zimmerman, quotes from Guthrie, front and back LP cover art, and stills, promotional photos and lobby cards from the film. This is an offbeat part of Guthrie’s catalog, but the film music and bonus radio track tell interesting stories about his development as an artist. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Arlo Guthrie’s Home Page