It’s spooky how good the Rubinoos sound in their 45th year as a band. Jon Rubin’s lead vocals are still sweetly youthful, songwriter Tommy Dunbar continues to mine a seemingly inexhaustible supply of melodies, and the quartet’s harmonies are as tight as ever. The current line-up features long-time bassist Al Chan and original drummer Donn Spindt, and are nearly indistinguishable from the group that was featured in the pages of Tiger Beat magazine.
None of which should suggest that the Rubinoos are frozen in the amber of 1977. Dunbar’s songwriting has widened over the years, both in the musical influences he incorporates and the themes he explores. There’s jazz in the guitar of “Graveyard Shift,” a soulful melody (and a touch of electric sitar!) in “What More Can You Ask of a Friend,” and “Does Suzie Like Boys” updates the standard love song with a modern day consideration. Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity” provides the atmosphere for the dark instrumental “Kangaroo Court,” and the group rocks out for “Countdown to Love.”
Still, there’s plenty of pure pop, including Al Chan’s tender vocal on “You Are Here” and an a cappella cover of Lou Christie’s “Rhapsody in the Rain.” The latter is highlighted by Jon Rubin’s falsetto and a bass vocal from The Mighty Echoes’ Charlie Davis. The band’s doo-wop and garage roots cross paths in “I Love Louie Louie,” and Dunbar’s affinity for the Beatles, by way of Erie, PA’s Wonders, is heard in his 12-string laden original “That Thing You Do.” Originally pitched for the film, the demo (sung by Dunbar and Chan) has been spruced up with Donn Spindt’s drums.
Before he was Jimi, he was Jimmy; and before his name was above the title, he was a sideman, playing guitar for the Isley Brothers, Don Covay, Little Richard and others. In late 1965 and early 1966 (and again for a jam session in 1967), Hendrix performed and recorded with Harlem R&B singer Curtis Knight, and through Knight met and signed with manager Ed Chalpin. That contract, which became entangled with a subsequent 1966 contract with Chas Chandler, resulted in these early recordings being misrepresented and shoddily released (and re-released) in the wake of Hendrix’s solo success. During his lifetime, Hendrix was offended that these recordings were passed off as his own artistic creations, but in retrospect they provide a valuable look at his climb up the professional ladder to stardom.
Four of these tracks were released in 1966 as singles on the RSVP label. The first, “How Would You Feel,” riffs on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” with new lyrics that invoke issues of racism and the on-going struggle for equality. The second single, instrumentals “Hornet’s Nest” and “Knock Yourself Out,” represents Hendrix’s first commercial release as a songwriter. Neither single made any commercial, chart nor critical impact at the time, and the rest of the tracks remained in the vault until Hendrix’s fame blew up in 1967. At that point Chalpin began issuing albums that seemed to intentionally obscure the material’s provenance, giving Hendrix credit over Knight, and using cover photos that post-dated the sessions by two years. This continued off and on for decades, until the family-run Experience Hendrix organization finally acquired control in 2003.
Remixed by Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer to reflect the sound of the times in which they were recorded, and presented accurately with Hendrix as a sideman, these tracks become an essential element of the Hendrix legacy. Stripping away the coattail hucksterism of earlier releases, this volume shows a side of Hendrix’s guitar playing that would soon be overshadowed by his on-going invention. Knight is an adequate vocalist and the material is bouncy, if not particularly inspiring, and as a sideman, there was only so much Hendrix could do to add juice. Knight gets originality points for working the audience through the Jerk, Bo Diddley, Mashed Potato and Monkey on “Simon Says,” as well as for setting the classic nonsense poem “One Bright Day in the Middle of the Night” to a stomping Bo Diddley beat on “Strange Things.”
As a backing player in an R&B band, Hendrix was limited in what and where he could play, but he’s still Hendrix, and you can’t help but listen as he vamps rhythm chords, chicken picks or plays with a springy Ike Turner-styled tone. Hendrix gets numerous opportunities to play lead, and distinguishes himself with concise solos that make the most of a tight spot in someone else’s four-minute song. It’s not the revelatory work of his solo years, but neither is it a journeyman merely filling time. Three of the set’s instrumentals – “No Such Animal,” the hard-driving “Hornet’s Nest,” and the nearly seven-minute unedited version of “Knock Yourself Out (Flying On Instruments)” – provide room for Hendrix to stretch out and show just how good he was as a relatively straight R&B guitarist.
Engineer Eddie Kramer has rescued these tapes from the edits, overdubs and poor mixes of earlier vinyl issues, restoring their vitality and returning them as close to their original state as one could hope for. The drums remain a bit muddy in the background – most likely a product of the original recording- but the bass is fluid and strong, and the guitars and organ have some real sting. With forty studio masters and stage recordings to choose from, this volume promises to be the first of several, which makes the track selection a bit of an overview, and the sequencing a bit of a puzzle. The set features tracks from the late ‘65 and early ‘66 dates, as produced by Ed Chalpin, instrumental sessions produced by Jerry Simon, and a couple of pieces from a 1967 session that was recorded amidst Hendrix’s legal wrangling with Chalpin. The latter includes studio chatter in which Hendrix admonishes Chalpin not to use his name to sell these recordings, and “Gloomy Monday,” which was recorded four days after Hendrix was served with a lawsuit by Chalpin.
Hubbard picks up where he left off with 2012’s The Grifter’s Hymnal, bursting with creative songs that merge country, blues and rock into a seamless experience. Recorded in only a few days, mostly live in the studio, Hubbard came prepared with his songs done and his regular rhythm section (Rick Richards on drums and George Reiff on bass) complemented by the guitars of his son Lucas and Austinite Gabriel Rhodes. The preparation and familiarity clearly turned the players loose, as these songs have the patina of material that had been honed on the road, with deep grooves, rhythm guitars that interlock and leads that play off one another.
The band follows Hubbard with incredible ease as he moves from gritty electric blues to acoustic folk-country. There’s a poet’s sweat in his lyrics, born of life experience rather than academic construction. He calls out Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones on “Hey Mama, My Time Ain’t Long,” and both the Stones and other blues legends turn up regularly throughout the album. “Jessie Mae” was inspired by Mississippi blues legend Jessie Mae Hemphill, and “Mr. Musselwhite’s Blues” sings of the mentoring Musselwhite received from Little Walter and Big Joe Williams. Hubbard also pays tribute with some fine harmonica playing throughout the album.
“The Fool” was written by Lee Hazlewood (though credited to his nom de spouse, Naomi Ford, and with a guitar riff borrowed from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’“), and first waxed by Sanford Clark in 1956. Since then, the song’s been recorded dozens of times across a surprising range of genres. Here, for your irritainment*, are twenty-eight different recordings, clocking it at over ninety-six oddly hypnotic minutes.
Throughout the ‘50s and well into the ‘60s, Johnny Mathis was the answer to the question “Who do you make out to? Sinatra or Mathis?” Mathis’ distinctive voice and long, vibrato-laced notes created a romantic mood that flourished especially well at album length. By the time rock shoved adult contemporary music off of the radio, Mathis had begun to expand his stylistic palette, while still remaining true to his romantic roots. This two-disc set compiles Mathis’ mid-70s work with Philly soul legend Thom Bell, collecting two full albums (1973’s I’m Coming Home and 1977’s Mathis Is…) alongside eight bonus selections that include mono and stereo singles, unreleased instrumentals and collaborations released elsewhere as album tracks.
It’s not particularly surprising that Mathis fit easily into Bell’s string-laden arrangements, but as the band heats up with deeper bass and horns, Mathis breaks free of his comfort zone.Writing with lyricist Linda Creed for the 1973 release, Bell fashioned material that both catered to and challenged Mathis. Bell kept Mathis in the middle of his vocal range, exploring the singer’s ability to build emotion without relying on high notes. The soft brass of “I’m Coming Home” shines a light on Bell’s fondness for Burt Bacharach, and rose to the top of the Easy Listening chart. But Bell also pushed Mathis, inviting the staccato delivery of “Life is a Song Worth Singing” that adds attitude to the performance. The six minute album version includes terrific instrumental work from Philly International’s house band, MFSB, that was cut from the three-minute single.
In addition to the newly written material, I’m Coming Home includes covers of the Stylistics’ “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” and “I’m Stone in Love With You,” with fresh arrangements to suit Mathis and fit the album’s tone. The latter won over the Soul Train dancers in a 1974 performance that also featured the Bell/Creed original “Foolish.” The first disc’s bonus tracks include the mono edit of “Life is a Song Worth Singing,” the stereo single of “I’m Coming Home,” and previously unreleased instrumental takes of “I’m Stone in Love With You” and “And I Think That’s What I’ll Do.” The latter pair shows off Bell’s deft touch as an arranger and producer, and the house band’s ability to flawlessly nail a song’s mood.
Mathis and Bell reunited in 1977 to record a second album at Seattle’s Kaye-Smith (later Heart’s Bad Animals) studio. Surprisingly, though waxed on the West Coast amid the rising tide of disco, the album picks up where their previous collaboration left off. Bell wrote many of the album’s originals with his nephew LeRoy, and combined Philly and West Coast studio aces and orchestral players to build a sound that’s remarkably free of disco’s tropes. Mathis luxuriates in the long notes of “Lullaby of Love” and soaring strings of “Heaven Must Have Made You Just For Me.” Bell comes right back with the upbeat “Loving You-Losing You,” and his love of Bacharach-styled bounce is heard in “I’ll Make You Happy.”
Translator’s 1982 modern rock classic “Everywhere That I’m Not” turned out to be an ironic title, since it was itself everywhere. The record’s canny combination of an impassioned post-punk vocal, a singalong chorus and the rocket fuel of Columbia Records’ distribution network launched the single on both college and commercial radio. Translator formed in Los Angeles, but found their home on Howie Klein’s San Francisco-based 415 label, alongside Romeo Void, Wire Train and Red Rockers. The group’s debut, Heartbeats and Triggers, gained deep album play on college radio just as the medium was itself was gaining traction as a tastemaker. The band recorded three more albums, showing off talent and imagination that spanned well beyond their new wave breakthrough, but they never again caught the popular heat of their debut.
This volume of demos is centered around that key year of 1982, collecting early, pre-LP material from 1979, and extending through tracks recorded at the time of their self-titled third album in 1985. Most familiar to most listeners will be the demos of “Everywhere That I’m Not” and its album-mate “Necessary Spinning.” Each is surprisingly finished in its attitude and arrangement, sounding ready for both the studio and stage. The former is among four recordings by the original trio lineup, waxed before guitarist Robert Darlington joined the band. The band’s first two demos, “Translator” and “Lost,” show how the band merged rock ‘n’ roll roots – rockabilly, surf and mod – with a harder punk delivery. By 1980 the group had grown into the quartet that would stay together throughout their four 1980’s albums, and regroup for 2012’s Big Green Lawn.
The demos include material from each of those four original albums, including an early version of “Beyond Today,” titled “Get Out.” The demo’s raw sound – particularly its dry vocals – contrasts sharply with the album’s polished production; the original on-the-nose protest lyrics were smartly replaced by more open-ended, philosophical thoughts. In many cases, the album versions only lightly brushed up what was already in the demos, clarifying the acoustics, enlarging the drums and tightening the guitars. What will be especially interesting to fans are the songs that never made it past demo form, including the post-punk “Lost,” prog-rock “Fiendish Thingy,” punk rock “Optimism,” neo-psych “We Fell Away,” French language “My Restless Heart,” hard-rocking “Brouhaha” and the superb set closer “I’ll Be Your Summer.”
Scott Fitzgerald is often quoted as saying there are no second acts in American lives, but as he observed for himself, second acts abound; not least of which was his own. But third acts are indeed rare, and particularly in the fad-driven business of music. Dion DiMucci is one of the few who successfully reinvented himself twice, transitioning from 1950s doo wop to swaggering 1960s solo stardom, and when that spotlight dimmed, reinventing himself as a sensitive folk artist with Dick Holler’s “Abraham, Martin and John.” Although this latter hit marked the end of his mainstream chart success, it spurred a period of creativity that fueled this solo show at New York’s famed Bitter End, a renewed focus on songwriting and an award-winning career as a contemporary Christian artist.
With just his guitar in hand, Dion proved himself to be a consummate entertainer, seamlessly assimilating his recent folk material with earlier pop hits and cover songs. It’s a virtuoso performance that shows off his dexterity as an acoustic picker, his versatility as a singer, and his absolute command of the stage as a performer. The set list spans 1950’s blues and rock, Dion’s early ‘60s classics and late ’60s folk songs, and a generous helping of deftly picked covers of material from Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Leonard Cohen, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins and the Beatles. Dion opens the disc with a sensitive reading of Dylan’s “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind,” and sings out strong and clear in a riveting take of his original B-side, “Brand New Morning.”
He’s warm and funny as he introduces Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” slowing the song into a croon that rides on a thumbed bass line, skipping through the verses, updating “Yokohama” to “Vietnam,” and adding some scatting for good measure. The song’s bluesy style was likely born of the material Dion recorded (but didn’t always release) in the mid-60s, exemplified here by covers of “You Better Watch Yourself” and “Don’t Start Me Talking.” He even turns his own 1961 hit “The Wanderer” into a 12-bar blues so compelling that you’ll be hard-pressed to match it to the original. 1962’s “Ruby Baby” combines a straighter reading of the melody with swaggering asides so easily interjected that they could only be the product of a decade’s nightly performances.
James has made a name writing, singing and playing a unique combination of hot jazz and Western Swing with Austin’s Hot Club of Cowtown. Though known primarily for her virtuosity as a fiddler, her voice, much like fellow instrumental prodigy Alison Krauss, has always held special qualities. Her self-titled 2007 solo album combined the same talents she’d leveraged in Hot Club – fiddle, voice and songwriting – but in a wider context that glimpsed her influences through the selection of cover songs. Eight years later, her second album expands on the same premise, weaving together originals, instrumentals (“Eva’s Dance” and “Waltz of the Animals”), and a selection of covers that spans jazz (“All I Need is You”), folk (“Hobo’s Lullaby”), counterculture classics (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Ripple”), ‘70s novelty (“Telephone Man”) and even ‘80s synthpop (“Only You”).
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