Posts Tagged ‘Tompkins Square’

Tom Armstrong: The Sky is an Empty Eye

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

Superb private press album of guitar instrumentals

When you can make a record with a USB microphone and cloud-based recording, it’s hard to remember the revolution that was home recording. TEAC’s 4-track reel-to-reel recorders (and TASCAM’s later cassette-based Portastudio) for the semi-pro market allowed home recordists to multi-track and overdub without the overbearing expense (and ticking clock) of studio time. Some of these sessions ended up in the commercial market, but many were unspooled only for friends and family, or circulated in local vinyl pressings. Tompkins Square sampled several of these small batch recordings on Imaginational Anthem, Vol. 8: The Private Press, and now expands on the theme with this first of several planned full album reissues.

Tom Armstrong had hung around the edges of the music business, playing bars and open mics, but when his engineering career took off, dreams of a professional music career were put aside. But a 4-track gifted to him by his wife kept his guitar playing alive, and provided a creative outlet into which he poured this original music. Though he kept recording for more than a decade, this is the one collection of songs he had mastered and pressed to vinyl, handing out copies mostly to friends and business associates. He favors meditative acoustic tracks, such as the harmonic-filled opener and the somnambulistic “Dream Waltz,” but he adds dripping neo-psych notes to “Keller,” picks electric slide on “The Thing,” and sings the title track.

The album’s variety might have driven a market-seeking record label crazy, but it’s exactly that free-spiritedness that gives the album its charm. The segue from the finger-picked electric “Mama’s Baby” to the echoed, nearly discordant “Bebop” suggests the evolution of blues into jazz, and the album continues to evolve as it closes with the driving spaciness of “Thunder Clouds.” Most of the arrangements appear to be two or maybe three guitars, sometimes rhythm and lead, often interleaving in original ways. Armstrong’s technique is good, but it’s his musical imagination and the freedom to follow his muse without commercial pressure that really gives these recordings their power. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Tompkins Square’s Home Page

Terry Waldo: The Soul of Ragtime

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

TerryWaldo_TheSoulOfRagtimeThe soul of Ragtime found in rags, marches, opera and more

Though Ragtime’s syncopation and polyrhythmic marches often conjure turn-of-the-twentieth-century nostalgia, it’s shown itself to be a terrifically hearty music. Jazz musicians revived the Ragtime canon in the 1940s, and many of the British Invasion’s brightest lights started out in Trad Jazz bands that played Ragtime selections. Even more strikingly, the 1970s saw Scott Joplin’s profile elevated by records, awards, and in 1974 (nearly sixty years after his passing) a Top 5 chart hit for “The Entertainer.” The latter achievement also pigeonholed Ragtime in the public consciousness as old-timey music, and obscured the breadth of its offerings in two-steps and fox trots in both instrumental and vocal forms.

Terry Waldo began his exploration of Dixieland and Ragtime in the 1960s and his radio serial This is Ragtime, and a book of the same title, were centerpieces of the 1970s revival. He’s continued to champion the music’s history and promote its on-going vitality with new compositions and recordings, live performances (both solo and with his Gotham City Jazz Band), and as a teacher. His latest album combines newly composed tunes with classics of the repertoire and songs brought to Ragtime by Waldo’s deft ears and fingers. Waldo draws material from gospel, Broadway, early jazz, marches, and perhaps most surprising, nineteenth-century opera. The latter, from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, is a somber piece whose relationship to Ragtime is revealed in its lighter final minute.

Waldo shines on the album’s wide range of rags, including the original “Turkish Rondo Rag” and “Ragtime Ralph,” but the album’s biggest surprises are in tunes not famously known as piano rags. John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars & Stripes Forever” wears Waldo’s syncopation with a glee that befits the song’s joyous patriotism, and the jaunty flourishes added to “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” enliven a song typically played as a funeral dirge. Waldo reads “I’m Just Wild About Harry” in the romantic vein of its composer, Eubie Blake, rather than the upbeat band arrangements of the ’20s and ’30s, and his rendition of “The Pearls” retains the character of Jelly Roll Morton’s solo arrangement. If you think Ragtime is nothing more than a nostalgic, almost corny soundtrack for The Sting, Waldo’s deep scholarship and vital artistry will set you straight. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Terry Waldo’s Home Page

Various Artists: I Heard the Angels Singing

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Various_IHeardTheAngelsSingingExtraordinary collection of Southern black gospel 1951-1983

Ernest L. Young’s Excello and Nashboro labels have a creation story that would be tough to duplicated today. Young started as a successful jukebox operator in Nashville before adding a retail store that sold his customers the very records they’d been renting on a nickel-per-play basis. Further capitalizing on these two ventures, Young realized that starting a label and selling his own records would be even more profitable. Recording in a makeshift (and later, a purpose-built) studio in his store, he launched the Nashboro label in mid-1951 and the subsidiary Excello the following year. Excello initially picked up Nashboro’s excess, but became a blues and R&B label in 1955, releasing sides by Lonnie Brooks, Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim and others.

Young’s businesses fed one another, with his retail shop sponsoring radio programs and offering its front window for live broadcasts. The label’s early productions were primitive by modern standards, but stripping down the arrangements to a cappella or voices supported by a simple guitar allowed the testimony to shine. There are splashes of piano, organ and reverb, but even as the productions became more complex over time, the focus always remained on the fervent vocal fire. Nashboro’s acts included soloists, duets and groups singing lead and backing, call-and-response and harmonies, and the label found both artistic and commercial success in all these varied formats. The material includes both gospel standards and newly written songs, each of which provides lasting echoes of the era’s civil rights struggles.

Highlights include the male-female duet testimony of the Consolers “This May Be the Last Time”(the refrain of which was repurposed for the Rolling Stones’ “Last Time”), the CBS Trumpeteers’ soulful “Milky White Way,” the Gospel Five Singers’ torchy “Love Deep Down in Your Heart,” and the pre-teen shout of Robert “Little Sugar” Hightower (of the Hightower Brothers) on “Seat in the Kingdom.” Many of the fifties and early-60s sides share vocal attributes with doo-wop, and the later entries branch into the blues of Sister Emma Thompson’s “You Should Have Been There,” the soul of Rev. Willingham and the Swanee Quintet’s “That’s the Spirit,” and the wild hand-clapping rock ‘n’ soul of Bevins Specials’ “Everybody Ought to Pray.” The productions finally become stereo with Hardie Clifton stirring soul vocal on the Brooklyn Allstars’ ballad, “I Stood on the Banks of Jordan.”

Though the sonics improve throughout the 1970s, the music remains mostly faithful to the gospel, soul and blues roots of the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s. It’s not until the end of disc four, with the Salem Travelers’ 1981 “Moving On,” that the sound of 1970s R&B is really heard. Gospel’s influence is easy to find in the popular music of the ’50s and ’60s, but listening to these Nashboro sides it becomes evident that it wasn’t only crossover stars like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin who made an impact. If you like the soul of Chess, Stax, Muscle Shoals, Atlantic or any number of vocalists and groups whose style was rooted in gospel, you’ll enjoy just about every track on this set. Providing a cherry on top, the 16-page booklet is stuffed with superb picture, graphics and detailed liner notes by Opal Louis Nations. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Various Artists: Live at Caffe Lena

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

Various_LiveAtCaffeLenaAn extraordinary collection of live folk performances

Three hours north of Greenwich Village, Caffe Lena proved as important to the folk revival as Gerde’s FolkCity or the Bitter End. Opened in 1960 by Bill and Lena Spencer, the coffee house has been run as a not-for-profit organization since Lena Spencer’s passing in 1989; its fifty-three year run is thought to be the longest for a U.S. coffee house. But more important than the business is the broad array of artists – famous, soon-to-be-famous and never-famous – who trod upon the venue’s stage. Caffe Lena played host to acoustic singer-songwriters, bluegrass bands, Irish fiddlers, gospel singers, delta bluesmen and the many others who fit under the umbrella of “folk music.”

In 2002, the Caffe Lena History Project began exploring and assessing the archive of documentation left by the cafe’s founder. This grew into parallel projects that investigated photographic and recorded materials, including a hundred reels of live recordings made in the 1960s and 70s, and cassettes from later decades. What’s particularly extraordinary about the recorded material (aside from the restoration’s ability to weave five decades of disparate tape sources into a surprisingly cohesive album) is its passive documentation of live performance. These performances were aimed entirely at the audience (whose applause and laughter are integral elements of the proceedings) rather than the tape recorder (or, in modern parlance, a smartphone YouTube posting). The performances were meant to live on in memory and influence, rather than recorded posterity, and that lack of permanence fosters an ephemeral intimacy with the audience.

Tompkins Square’s three-disc box set cherry picks forty-seven previously unreleased performances from the available tapes, and adds previously unpublished period photographs. The artist roll features many famous names of the 1960s, including Tom Paxton, Utah Phillips, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, but also leading lights of later decades and artists whose renown never matched the quality of their work. Caffe Lena was a launching point for both fame and art, and at times, the intertwining of the two. Missing from this set (either because tapes or rights weren’t available) are two of the cafe’s most famous patrons, Bob Dylan and Don McLean, but their absence can’t dim the bright lights presented here. This is a treasure for folk fans, and hopefully only the leading edge of additional archival releases. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Caffe Lena’s Home Page

Bill Wilson: Ever Changing Minstrel

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

BillWilson_EverChangingMinstrelExtraordinary, yet virtually unknown singer-songwriter Americana from 1973

A label as big as Columbia in the early ‘70s was bound to miss a few opportunities, even ones they’d signed, recorded and released. Such was the case for this 1973 rarity, the product of an Indiana singer-songwriter, the famous producer he engaged and the all-star studio band wrangled for the occasion. The singer-songwriter is the otherwise unknown Bill Wilson, the producer, who’d already helmed key albums for Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, was Bob Johnston, and the band was a collection of Nashville legends that featured Charlie McCoy, Pete Drake and Jerry Reed. Wilson had made Johnston’s acquaintance by knocking on his door and naively asking to make a record; Johnston agreed to listen to one song, and by that evening, was in the studio with his unknown artist and hastily assembled band.

The record features a dozen original songs, and though released by Columbia, it was quickly lost in the wake of Clive Davis’ departure from the label (and reportedly a pot bust). The few copies that circulated disappeared before the album could even make an impression as a sought-after, long-lost treasure. It just vanished. It wasn’t until former Sony staffer Josh Rosenthal found a copy in a record store bargain bin that the title dug its way out of obscurity to this reissue. Johnston and Wilson never saw one another after their recording session, but Johnston was able to sketch out the album’s background. Wilson had landed in Austin after a stint in the Air Force, and found that Johnston had set up base there after leaving his position as a staff producer at Columbia. Wilson had some prior musical experience, singing and playing dobro in local bands, but it was as a singer-songwriter with a Southern edge, that he was compelled to make music.

Wilson’s touchstones included Dylan (and perhaps Bobby Darin’s late-60s activist sides), but also Austin songwriter Townes van Zandt, singer-guitarist Tony Joe White, and the open road sound of the Allman Brothers. The quality of the songs and performances would be impressive as a peak moment among an artist’s catalog, but as a one-off it’s truly extraordinary. Wilson is confident and earthy, while the band handles his material as if they’d been playing it on tour for years. The songs, in shades of folk, blues and rock, touch on traditional singer-songwriter themes, and the religiously-themed numbers have a strong hippie vibe. The label lists this as remastered from tape, but there seem to be a few vinyl artifacts that are more patina than distraction. The album’s rediscovery is an incredible feat of crate digging, and its return to circulation is most welcome. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Roland White: I Wasn’t Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

Long-lost string-band music from 1976

By the time mandolinist and vocalist Roland White cut this album in 1976, he was a well-seasoned bluegrass performer. His family band, the Country Boys had morphed into the Kentucky Colonels, released several albums and toured the U.S. When the Colonels broke up in 1965, White’s brother Clarence became a sought-after session guitarist, a member of Nashville West and, in 1968, a member of the Byrds. During the same period Roland joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, and later, Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass. The brothers had a short-lived reunion in a reformed Kentucky Colonels, but when a drunk driver struck and killed Clarence, Roland was once again on his own. White joined Country Gazette in 1974, staying for 13 years and recording this album with their instrumental and vocal backing. The progressive elements the band brought to their group albums are left behind as these songs are drawn from classics by Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmie Davis, and Bill Monroe, highlighted by the seven-minute, six-song medley, “Marathon.” White proves himself a compelling vocalist, adding bluesy slides to his solo phrases and fitting tightly into the backing harmonies. The set’s lone original is the White brothers’ “Powder Creek,” joining two other instrumentals on the original album. This first-ever CD reissue, with one bonus track (“She is Her Own Special Baby”), is remastered from the original tapes, and sparkles with the energy the players brought from the stage into the studio. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Roland White’s Home Page
See Roland, Eric and Clarence White’s childhood home movies