Conway Twitty: Rocks at the Castaway

May 19th, 2015

ConwayTwitty_RocksAtTheCastawayOne-of-a-kind Conway Twitty live set from 1964

More than a decade before Conway Twitty became one of country music’s most prolific hitmakers, he was a pompadour-wearing rock ‘n’ roller, schooled by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. Starting with 1958’s chart-topping “It’s Only Make Believe,” Twitty strung together nearly two years of pop hits that included “Lonely Blue Boy,” “Mona Lisa” and a bouncy take on “Danny Boy” (all of which can be found on The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years box set, or the more concise Conway Rocks). He turned to country music in the mid-60s, and with 1968’s “Next in Line,” began twenty years of nearly unparalleled chart success. The transition from ’50s rocker to ’60s country star found Twitty and his band the Lonely Blue Boys on the road, playing bars and clubs throughout the country, mixing original hits with covers from blues, rock, R&B and country.

In August 1964 the group touched down for a week’s stand at Geneva-on-the-Lake’s Castaway Nightclub. Hobbyists Alan Cassaro and Bob Scherl used an Olsen reel-to-reel recorder and an Electrovoice EV 664 microphone to capture two sets on each of two nights. With only a single microphone (which Twitty generously allowed them to place next to his stage mic) and a mono recorder, Cassaro and Scherl were at the mercy of stage mixes that shortchanged the drums, sax and keyboards, but Twitty’s guitar and vocals are clear, and the band’s crowd-pleasing performances are superb. This material has been issued before, but Bear Family has improved the sound, cherry-picked the best version of each song from the four different sets, and included the previously unissued instrumental “Rinky.”

The set list features many ‘50s and early ‘60s rock, pop, R&B and blues standards, including Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working,” Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee,” and incendiary covers of Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker” and Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover.” The latter finds Big Joe E. Lewis laying down a great bass line over which the sax, piano and guitar solo. Twitty’s talent as a rock ‘n’ ‘roller was overwhelmed by his later success as a country star, but he sings here with real fervor, and lays down several hot guitar leads. Twitty’s 1960 original “She’s Mine” shows a heavy Jerry Lee Lewis influence, and his hit “Lonely Blue Boy” (sung both in medley and standalone) has the unmistakable imprint of Elvis Presley’s growl.

By 1964 Twitty was already cutting country demos, and the next year he’d jump from MGM to Decca to record with Owen Bradley in Nashville. His live set was incorporating country material, including Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and Bobby Darin’s “Things.” His band still favored blues, rock and pop, but you can hear Twitty’s vocals starting to add country flavor to the bent notes. Even more country, his cover of “It Keeps Right On a-Hurtin’” adds a helping of  honky-tonk to Johnny Tillotson’s string-lined original, and “Born to Lose” is sung as a blues that fits between Ted Daffan’s 1943 original and Ray Charles’ lush cover.

Bear Family’s knit the tracks together with bits of stage patter, audience chatter, pre-intermission vamping and even a few flubs, to provide a sense of the overall performance; all that’s missing are the tunes sung by band members when Twitty too a break. The band shows off their road-honed chops as they swing into each song at Twitty’s calls. The set list depicts a relentless show that powers through up-tempo singles “Is a Bluebird Blue,” “Danny Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” and packs emotional crooning into covers of “Unchained Melody” and “What a Dream.” The set’s booklet offers Bear Family’s typical riches of photos, graphic design and well-researched liner notes. This is a great release for Twitty’s ardent fans, documenting the earliest phase of his transition from a rock ‘n’ roller to a country icon. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Arthur Lyman: Leis of Jazz

May 17th, 2015

ArthurLyman_LeisOfJazzCocktail jazz with a Hawaiian flair on Lyman’s debut

After co-developing the exotica genre for Martin Denny’s original 1957 mono recording of Exotica, vibraphonist Arthur Lyman quickly founded his own combo. His debut as a bandleader came the same year with Leis of Jazz, kicking off a successful decade-long relationship with the Los Angeles HiFi label. Like Denny, Lyman built his catalog from a mix of island songs, world folk, jazz standards and Broadway tunes, but his arrangements often had a stronger jazz influence than Denny’s. The opening “The Lady is a Tramp” showcases Lyman’s superb vibraphone playing, as well as providing room for pianist Alan Soares, and Lyman’s rhythm section of John Kramer (bass) and Harold Chang (percussion) keeps the music moving with bouncy tempos and polite solos of their own. Like Denny’s combo, Lyman’s employed a variety of world percussion, but most often as accents that remain organic to the arrangements. The group’s later albums would adopt more of exotica’s kitschy elements, but on this first outing, the group plays as a superb supper-club jazz quartet. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Danny Elfman: So-Lo

May 17th, 2015

DannyElfman_SoLoOingo Boingo front man steps out solo… with Oingo Boingo

Just before commencing a career in film scoring, Danny Elfman cut this solo album in 1984. The following year he would score Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and his career as a composer would quickly kick into high gear. Elfman’s score for 1980’s Forbidden Zone suggested his future direction, but this solo album was more tightly connected to the sound of Oingo Boingo (who were in the middle of a two-year hiatus, and a change of record labels between Good for Your Soul and Dead Man’s Party) than his soon-to-be-developing ideas for film scores.

If you like mid-80s Oingo Boingo, you will enjoy this solo outing, which features similar synths, guitars, horns, drums and vocal styles. With Oingo Boingo serving as his backing band, it’s unsurprising that this sounds like an Oingo Boingo album, albeit with a few mid-tempo numbers that might never have made the Boingo cut. Varese’s reissue adds the single mix of “Gratitude” (from the soundtrack of Beverly Hills Cop) to the original nine tracks. The eight-page booklet includes the original front and back cover art, lyrics and new liner notes by Jerry McCulley. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Charlie Parr: Stumpjumper

May 16th, 2015

CharlieParr_StumpjumperCountry-blues from another time

Country-blues artist Charlie Parr isn’t just from Duluth, Minnesota, he’s from another time. Parr’s 12-string, National steel, fretless banjo, and especially his high, searing vocals spring more from the heat of Southeastern blues than they do from the chilly shores of Lake Superior. His transplanted roots aren’t without precedent, as his career developed in parallel to the bluegrass of Trampled By Turtles and old-timey fiddle tunes of Four Mile Portage, and his Minnesota upbringing was itself quite rural. But there’s an edginess to his work that’s even more primordial and other-worldly, and his string riffs often repeat in idiosyncratic patterns that are hypnotic and spiritual. The recording quality is modern, but his expression has the impromptu feel of field recordings.

Parr often lives the itinerant road life of his blues ancestors, reportedly even cooking on his engine manifold. He ventured to North Carolina to collaborate on these sessions with Megafun’s Phil Cook, recording his first album outside of Minnesota, and his first with a full band. The piano, bass and drums provide Parr an opportunity to stray from his double duty as both percussionist and melodist, but he still finds plenty of space to double down on his usual syncopation. His assembled band mates tune Par’s rhythmic grooves, providing a natural extension of his solo style, and Nick Peterson’s production highlights individual instrumental voices within the interlocking mash of fiddle, banjo, bass, acoustic, electric, steel-, 6- and 12-string guitars.

Parr’s more of a storyteller than an autobiographer, though he leverages both talents here. His stories include mean breakups, meditations on aging and fatalistic views of changing times. He draws upon long-held beliefs with the revengeful hymn “Empty Out Your Pockets,” and twists personal experiences into the fantastical “On Marrying a Woman With an Uncontrollable Temper.” Parr recounts more than he performs; the difference is subtle, but adds a sense of authenticity to his first-person narratives, whether personal, like the album’s title track, or historical, such as the captivity narrative of “Falcon.” The album closes with a cover of the murder ballad “Delia,” adding a heartfelt link to the interpretive chain of folk music. Parr is an old soul, but as the vitality of his music proves, soul never really gets old. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Charlie Parr’s Home Page

Leo Bud Welch: I Don’t Prefer No Blues

May 14th, 2015

LeoBudWelch_IDontPreferNoBluesYou’re never too old to sing the blues

82-year-old Leo Welch is sure making up for lost time. After releasing his gospel-infused debut, Sabougla Voices, he’s back with a sophomore effort. The common saw of younger artists — that you have twenty-something years to make your first record, and only one to make your second — doesn’t really apply here; there’s no way Welch could have spent eighty-one years of pent-up music on a single debut album. In this second trip to the studio, he expands into secular themes and more straight forward electric blues, with excellent support from Jimbo Mathus, Matt Patton, Bronson Tew, Eric Carlton, Stu Cole and Sharde Thomas. His original material (apparently all titles but King Louie Bankston’s hypnotic “Girl in the Holler”) include the down-tempo lament of the opening “Poor Boy,” the buzzing woe of “Goin’ Down Slow,” the tipsy soul “Too Much Wine,” and the frantic “I Don’t Know Her Name.” Welch’s singing is raw and vital, and he’s got a knack for crafting lyrical hooks whose repetition make sure you get the point. The band provides flexible support, getting low down and gritty as needed, and rocking when the spirit strikes. Records like this are typically the province of crate digging, so it’s still surprising to find one that’s new. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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The Kingbees: The Kingbees

April 29th, 2015

Kingbees_KingbeesThe Kingbees’ debut still has its sting thirty-five years later

It’s hard to believe that at thirty-five, this album is nearly a decade older than was rockabilly itself in 1980. The Kingbees emerged in the late ‘70s, alongside the Blasters, Stray Cats, Pole Cats and others, and though primarily known for only this one album (their follow-up, The Big Rock, was stranded by their label’s bankruptcy), it’s among the very best of the 1980s rockabilly revival. The Kingbees laid down a solid backbeat, but weren’t afraid to move beyond the sound of vintage microphones, standup bass and slapback echo. Even better, they had great songs, guitar riffs that crossed classic tone with modern recording sonics, a fiery rhythm section (check out the bass and drum solos on “Everybody’s Gone”) and a terrific vocalist in lead bee, Jamie James.

Produced in the group’s native Los Angeles, the album initially failed to stir commercial interest, but in a page from the book of 1950s record promotion, the band gained a second wind through the regional airplay on Detroit’s WWWW and WRIF. “My Mistake” and “Shake Bop” both charted, and the band’s club performances led some to think they were local. The group’s second album garnered a cameo in The Idolmaker and an appearance on American Bandstand, but that was basically it. The group and their label both disbaned, leaving behind a small but impressive collection of recordings. The albums have been reissued as a twofer, but this remastered anniversary reissue sweetens the debut’s ten tracks with the demos that landed the band a contract, live tracks from a 1980 Detroit show, and a 12-page booklet featuring period photos and new liner notes from Jamie James.

The demos show how fully realized the band’s sound was before they signed with a label; even more impressively, the subsequent studio versions of “My Mistake,” “Man Made for Love” and “Ting a Ling” take the performances up another notch. The latter, a cover of the Clovers’ 1952 doo-wop hit, pairs with an inspired reworking of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Sweet Girl to Me” to show just how thoroughly the group knew what it had to offer. The latter kicks off the album, hotting up Warren Smith’s Sun-era cover in the same way Smith transformed Gibson’s original into rock ‘n’ roll. The live tracks show the trio to be a tight unit with plenty of spark, and the band’s simple, percussive covers of “Not Fade Away” and “Bo Diddley” speak to James’ roots rock inspirations; the former shines with the sheer joy of singing a Buddy Holly song, the latter gives all three players a chance to really lean on the Bo Diddley beat.

James’ originals are superb and sound fresh as he sings about girls, lust, romance, broken hearts and rock ‘n’ roll. “No Respect” builds from a slinky bass line and snappy snare drum to James’ lead guitar, and after a short verse, a sharp solo; Rex Roberts really grabs your attention with his drumming on both “My Mistake” and “Shake-Bop.” There’s a pop-punk edge to the faster numbers, but the rockabilly beat and James’ glorious ‘57 Fender Strat absorb, rather than fetishize the ‘50s roots. Cross-pollinated with the energy of ‘80s power-pop and new wave, the Kingbees forged a rock ‘n’ roll sound that’s proven quite timeless. Omnivore’s reissue features a master by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen, and includes a 12-page booklet highlighted by period photos and liner notes from Jamie James. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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Jimbo Mathus: Blue Healer

April 26th, 2015

JimboMathus_BlueHealerA head-turning arc through the Southern musical landscape

From the blistering opener, the original “Shoot Out the Lights,” it’s clear that Jimbo Mathus will be laying on hands that have been sanctified by the spirits of all manner of Southern music. With the prodding of Bronson Tew’s drums and and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel’s guitar, Mathus confesses that he’s the sort of person that trouble seems to find. It’s the start of a loosely structured concept album that sees Mathus’ protagonist counting up his sins, seeking the healing powers of the mystical title character, and questioning whether redemption can really even be had.

The story begins with the narrator cocooned in his troubles, but with “Ready to Run,” he emerges into a Springsteen-styled catharsis of urgency, ambition and passion. He aims to vanquish his doubts of redemption, but the struggle isn’t resolved in a simple, linear narrative. His thoughts turn inward with the mystical ponderings of “Coyote” and “Bootheel Witch,” and resurface to find wanton ways still at odds with a commitment to change. “Waiting for the Other Shoe to Fall” documents Saturday night’s revelry, and the closing “Love and Affection” provides Sunday morning’s appeal for forgiveness. In between, “Save It For the Highway” depicts the ongoing struggle between dark and light, and suggests the cycle may have no end.

There are numerous musical threads woven into this album, often within a single piece. The lyrics, guitars and Tex-Mex sounds of “Mama Please” echo David Allen Coe, Merle Haggard and Doug Sahm. The invocation of “Blue Healer” suggests the hoodoo of Dr. John and the dark, melodrama of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. There’s neo-psych guitar, an acoustic love song, spiritual New Orleans R&B, and even a great, noisy jam playing out “Bootheel Witch.”. This is music made by someone steeped in Southern styles; someone whose education was as much atmosphere as lesson plan. The fluency with which Mathus navigates his influences will come as no surprise to his fans, but even they may be floored by how fluidly it all comes together. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Jimbo Mathus’ Home Page

The Rubinoos: 45

April 19th, 2015

Rubinoos_45Ageless pop music

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.

The album closes with the optimistic “All It Takes” and a cover of Radio Days’ “She’s Driving Me Crazy.” Both tunes were previously released on a split 7”, but are a valuable addition for the stylus-impaired. The album proves that youthfulness is a state of mind, rather than a physical age, as the charms of the Rubinoos’ teenage years are undimmed. Since returning to the studio for 1998’s Paleophonic, the group’s waxed covers, children’s songs and more, but forty-five years on, they still reach back to their early years with ease. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

The Rubinoos’ Home Page

Curtis Knight & The Squires: You Can’t Use My Name – The RSVP/PPX Sessions

April 18th, 2015

CurtisKnightAndTheSquires_YouCan'tUseMyNameJimi Hendrix’s early recordings as an R&B sideman

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.

The 16-page booklet includes interesting liner notes by John McDermott and numerous photos; what’s missing is track-specific session data that would draw a clearer picture of what’s here, what’s missing, and why the tracks are sequenced as they are. In particular, tracks that were issued as singles are spread throughout the set, which may represent their session order, or may just be the reissue producers’ idea of good musical flow. With the painstaking attention paid to restoring the audio, it would be helpful to know the recording dates, as well as the selection process for this particular sampling from the vault. That said, the truth is in the grooves, and with Ed Chalpin’s machinations stripped away, fans can finally enjoy these recordings as a legitimate part of Hendrix’s path to stardom. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Jimi Hendrix’s Home Page

Ray Wylie Hubbard: The Ruffian’s Misfortune

April 17th, 2015

RayWylieHubbard_TheRuffiansMisfortuneRough and raw and blue and country and rockin’

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.

At 68, it’s not surprising that mortality threads through several of Hubbard’s songs, including the gospel-soul “Barefoot in Heaven” and the redemption-seeking “Stone Blind Horses.” But even with the devil as a toll-taker on the blues highway, Hubbard’s not preoccupied with the hereafter. He illuminates the virtues of badass girls with guitars and recounts his own history of fast times. “Bad on Fords” is sung more slyly than Sammy Hagar’s amped up cover, and the rapid-fire delivery of “Down By The River” (which recalls the earlier “Coricidin Bottle”) leads to some terrific twin guitar leads. Hubbard’s a man who knows what he wants to say, how he wants to say it and how he wants it to sound, and that’s about all you can ask for. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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