Archive for March, 2009


69 (albums) from 1969

When I think of 1969, I think the end of the hippie dream, the fading of peace and love. After the violence of the Democratic convention in ’68, it appeared the Yippies were taking precedence over the original anti-war movement that so many of us bought into when we were at college.

the-band-the-band1Despite the triumph of Woodstock, the year ended on the foreboding trajedy of Altamont. It was the year the Beatles said farewell, another dream that was ending. So when I think about 1969, I don’t necessarily think of great albums first. But as Mojo Magazine points out in a recent special edition with a piece aptly titled 69 from 1969, which we acknowledge with the headline above, there was a motherlode of great music released in 1969. The music was changing and the early ’70s gave us another wave of great music as well with the dawn of the singer-songwriter era. But the decade’s last year included an impressive list of offerings.

You can find music just as good or better from any year in the ’60s. But since it’s 40 years on for this watershed year, we have a poll below in which you can vote. To refresh your memory, here are some of the highlights in no particular order:

jethro-tull-stand-upThe Band, The Band: Their second release and perhaps my favorite, along with Stage Fright, filled with songs that make up one of the foundations of today’s Americana movement.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Neil Young: His second, and although I for one liked the weak-selling debut, this unquestionably has several of his standards.
Led Zeppelin I, Led Zeppelin: Some prefer the second, released in late 1969, but this really had the bigger impact as far as influencing the music scene. It was hard rock, but quite different in some ways than anything before.
Stand Up, Jethro Tull: Arguably their best, predating the more progressive leanings of the band.

slystandA Salty Dog, Procol Harum: Speaking of prog, but really is it? Using classical ideas and instrumentation in a tasteful combination is more like it.
The Gilded Palace Of Sin, The Flying Burrito Brothers: Gene Clark, the Byrds and others had recorded tracks and some nearly full albums of what was to be called country rock, but Gram Parsons’ first project as a leader really set the stage for the Eagles and those who followed.
Tommy, the Who: Many cite other Who albums as superior to this and that’s probably true, but none had a bigger influence in the grand scheme of things.

Stand, Sly & the Family Stone: This is loaded with classic Sly songs, Everyday People, I Want To Take You Higher, Sing A Simple Song, You Can Make It If You Try.
Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby, Stills & Nash: Deja Vu had some better songs on it, but as a trio this was their highlight.
Dusty In Memphis, Dusty Springfield: A peak  from a remarkably consistent vocalist, career defining.
Blind Faith, Blind Faith: The one-off, with about 15 minutes of filler, still holds up as a solid outing with at least a couple of rock ‘n roll classics.
Abbey Road, the Beatles: A fitting sendoff, which was recorded after but released before their official swan song, Let It Be.
In A Silent Way, Miles Davis: I preferred the first real experiment into fusion, Miles In The Sky (1967), but there is no doubting the impact of this outing.
Clouds, Joni Mitchell: I always think of this as coming out earlier than 1969, but her career didn’t take off in earnest as a solo performer until the ’70s with Blue and For The Roses.
Then Play On, Fleetwood Mac: The last gasp of the original Mac with Peter Green. It may have been the last but it has some wonderful blues romps, including Oh Well.
Let It Bleed, the Rolling Stones: Their decided shift back to blues-influenced rock on Beggar’s Banquet is followed by incorporating country blues into the mix. One of their last great ones.

There are many others, the Allman Brothers’ debut; Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief, not as well known in the States as the U.K., where it is a folk-rock staple; Santana’s and Chicago’s first. The list goes on.

What do you think? Vote for the best album of 1969.

This article is also available over at BabyBoom Review at this link.

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Concerts Vol. 2: Blown away

Several times over the years I’ve seen opening acts blow away a headliner. I mentioned one such concert that involved the original Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart at Woolsey Hall in New Haven in 1969.

rtrower1Two stand out above the rest though. The more recent was on Oct. 18, 1977. I know the date not because I still have a ticket stub, but because the concert became an album release for the headliner, Robin Trower (left, top), titled King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents, recorded at the now demolished New Haven Coliseum.

I was a huge Trower fan at the time and had seen him in the same venue close to two years earlier after the release of his third solo album. His band included James Dewar on bass and vocals and drummer Bill Lordan, who had played with Sly Stone.

At that concert, most of the material came from the seminal hard blues-rock album Bridge Of Sighs (1974), including Day Of The Eagle, Too Rolling Stoned and others, and a smattering from his latest, For Earth Below (1975). By 1977, Trower had released Long Misty Days, not as popular as his first three, and had  just released In City Dreams, which took a decided funkier and not quite as heavy turn.

rderringer1The opening act was the group Derringer, led by another guitar flash Rick Derringer (left). Since Derringer had released its first album in 1975, they had toured relentlessly and played in Connecticut frequently and New Haven often at the Arcadia Ballroom on Whalley Avenue, which at one time was a Nelke Motors dealership, selling Mercedes cars, and in Waterbury at the Red House.

I’d seen Derringer many times and his band was a solid hard rock outfit, with good songs and outstanding players. The original lineup included Vinny Appice, brother of Carmine (Vanilla Fudge, Rod Stewart)  on drums, the remarkable Kenny Aaronson on bass and Danny Johnson on second lead guitar. Neil Giraldo, who went on to play with and marry Pat Benetar, would replace Johnson within a year and Myron Grombacher took over for Appice. By the time of the Trower concert Mark Cunningham was on second guitar.

Derringer had a great stage show, but I always felt it was more suited for small clubs. I’d never seen the kind of pyrotechnics he had  planned for this opening slot. In addition to material from the Derringer albums, he also played  Rock ‘n Roll Hoochie Koo and Still Alive And Well, prior hits. Early in his set a large group of the audience rushed to the front of the stage where they were allowed to rock out. I was midway back on the floor and though I thought they sounded great, I also thought it was kind of strange that fans were rushing the stage, even for Derringer.

It all built to a heated and intense peak when Derringer and Cunningham stood on opposite sides of the stage and actually flipped their guitars high above their heads so they twirled in the air across the stage to each other, once, twice and them flipped them high in the year and caught them without a hitch. The crowed went absolutely bonkers.

When Trower came out with a band that now included Rustee Allen on bass, the audience was spent. Trower opened with Lady Luck, a scorcher of a rock tune, but the audience reaction was tepid. Not because they didn’t like him, they just didn’t have anything left. To make matters worse his second tune was the moderate tempo, almost laid-back funk of Somebody Calling, actually a track that is one of my favorites with very intricate guitar parts that are overdubbed in the studio, but that he proficiently pulls off live. You could tell he was annoyed at that point but he did a good job of concealing it, thanking the audience profusely for their appreciation. There was a little sarcasm detected.

The recording doesn’t reveal this as I believe they’ve padded some of the audience reaction, and admittedly by the end of the show, he had most of the crowed behind him. But it wasn’t anything like the first concert I had seen him play and it was definitely deflating.

lrussell-1The other occurrence of an opener upstaging the star was even more dramatic and happened much earlier, November 20, 1970 at the Fillmore East. I know this date because interestingly the performance by this headliner, Leon Russell, is also preserved on tape, this time over at Wolfgang’s Vault. It was  just after  the release of his first  solo album, Leon Russell. A longtime L.A. studio musician, he had come to prominence as the band leader for Joe Cocker on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Yeah, Joe was great but who is that guy with the long silver hair and the Les Paul standing on top of the grand piano?

His first solo album was nothing short of a revelation. People learned who he was quickly with a rocking gospel-flavored record that included many English guest musicians, unlisted in the credits, and some memorable songs such as Delta Lady and A Song For You. My girlfriend, Archer Rowbottom, and I were dying to see him.

ejohn-1The opening act was someone we had never heard of, but evidently had just released an album in the U.S., actually his second. His name was Elton John. He came out very low key. This was long before he started dressing to the nines. He had just a trio that included himself, Nigel Olson on drums and  Dee Murray on bass.

I had never heard any of the material, but when he broke into Take Me To The Pilot, that caught my attention as it did the rest of the audience. Early in his set, he played what would become his signature ballad, Your Song. That made a huge impression. Interesting that both he and Russell had solo ballads with such similar titles.

In the middle of the set, he said he had just been writing lyrics down on a cocktail napkin in his dressing room and he wanted to perform a new song they had never played live. It turned out to be the long and reflective Indian Sunset, which would be released two albums later on Madman Across The Water. At that point, I was mesmorized. He kept building the set and it climaxed that finished with The Border Song. The audience was ecstatic.

Russell came out, also kind of low key, with solo versions of Girl From the North Country and A Song For You, then he was joined by his band, the Shelter People, which included two guitars, organ, bass and two backup singers, Claudia Lennear and Kathi McDonald. He played all material from the first album and it sounded great but he never could build the audience to the kind of high they had just experienced with John.

Elton John was recently interviewed by Elvis Costello on Spectacle and it was fascinating to find out that Leon Russell was his idol when he first came to America and that when they played together for the first time, Russell watched him from the front row and then befriended him and became one of his greatest supporters. Isn’t  that cool?

Leon would have his day as far as my seeing him rock the house down. In August, 1972, still riding a high of creativity and popularity, we saw him at the Long Beach Arena in California, yet another performance captured on tape that would become the album Leon Live. This time the show was all his and he shook the place down with a band that by then had expanded to include the Rev. Patrick Henderson, who played a grand piano face-to-face with Leon who when he wasn’t standing on top of it was seated at a second grand piano, and the gospel backup singers of Henderson’s group, Black Grass.

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Hidden treasure

For years, the album Fiends & Angels has been one of the best kept secrets from the late 1960s blues-rock scene. Finally in 2008, the independent CD label Wounded Bird, which specializes in albums that the majors refuse to reissue, released this Martha Velez gem.

mvelez-1Until then, it had fetched rather pricey numbers on auction sites despite not having been a big seller at the time of its release in 1968. Still it was one of the defining blues-rock albums of the times, bringing together an almost perfect combination of singer, players and producer for a raw blues outing with unbridled energy. And some of the best playing by some of England’s best musicians.

Not available in the album credits and still not known completely, the personnel included, Eric Clapton, guitar; Jack Bruce (Cream), bass; Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix) and Jim Capaldi (Traffic), drums; Brian Auger (Oblivion Express), organ; Christine McVie (Chicken Shack, later Fleetwood Mac), piano; Keef Hartley, drums, and Chris Mercer, sax (Keef Hartley Band, John Mayall); Chris Wood (Traffic), sax and flute; and Duster Bennett, harmonica. That’s just a portion of the list.

Velez is a New Yorker, who studied opera at a young age and later attended the High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. She also joined a touring folk group, the Gaslight Singers, in college (Long Island University) and later had several lead roles on Broadway, including Hair. So how did she wind up recording her first solo album in England with all these prominent blues-rock musicians?

While recording a demo in New York with producer Richard Gottehrer, Seymour Stein of Sire Records was in the studio by coincidence. They immediately wanted to sign Velez and when it was revealed she loved the blues and particularly the material Cream was doing, they hooked her up with Mike Vernon, an English blues producer who had worked with the early Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall and later Ten Years After, among many others. He was also the founder of the blues label, Blue Horizon.

Vernon gathered together the elite group of musicians and a torrent of hot, inspired performances was unleashed on the material, matched perfectly to Velez’s voice, which has a trained quality but can be raunchy when needed.

mvelez-2The guitar solos are ferocious on most cuts and although Clapton is said to have played on only four, he is extremely recognizable on  the heavy groove of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Feel So Bad, I’m Gonna Leave You (perhaps the album’s best two tracks), It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry and In My Girlish Days. This was confirmed on a Velez compilation, Angels Of The Future Past, released on CD in the late ’80s. The other solos are just as powerful and inventive, perhaps attributable to the only listed guitarist on the session, Rick Hayward, although Spit James (Keef Hartley) and Paul Cossof (Free) are said to have also participated.

Jack Bruce is equally recognizable for his driving bass lines, all tight, punchy and restrained. Bennett blows heavy duty harp on both I’m Gonna Leave You and Feel So Bad, and Vernon also made liberal use of horns, giving the sessions yet another dimension.

The album contains so many other jewels: Velez’s funky composition Swamp Man, which holds the album’s title in the lyrics; the Joplin-esque slow blues A Fool For You; a cover of Etta James’ Tell Mama; the moderate shuffle of a smouldering Drive Me Daddy, over which Velez wails; Come Here Sweet Man, a delicate Velez original; and Let The Good Times Roll, the suitable rollicking closer. A great selection of songs.

Velez went on to record four other albums in the ’70s, including a reggae release, Escape To Babylon, produced by Bob Marley. She never fully returned to an album of all blues, although she did work with Vernon one more time on Matinee Weepers. Married to Keith Johnson, noted trumpet player with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Van Morrison, she also sang with Morrison’s band for a while. All her records, with the exception of her second, Hypnotized, are available from Wounded Bird.

You are unlikely to find Wounded Bird releases in a big music or electronics store at the mall. They are readily available at places such as Amazon. But a trip to the label’s web site is preferred because perusing its catalogue, you’ll find so many other long lost albums that haven’t seen the light of day on a major label.

My vinyl version of Fiends & Angels is still one of my most treasured from that time period. Even one in funky condition is fetching as much as $50 on eBay, despite the CD release. You have to love that album cover, too. The second image is from the UK release. For the record, Velez’s full name is Martha Carmen Josephine Hernandéz Rosario de Veléz. That’s an earful and so is this classic album.

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Neko Case storms through the heartland

Neko Case keeps pushing the frontier of her special blend of country rock to an expanse of thought-provoking songs and heartfelt performances. Her latest, Middle Cyclone, is perhaps her most satisfying mix.

case-middle-cycloneCase’s crystal clear voice, so pure and with seemingly limitless range, delivers lyrics of vivid imagery sometimes mixed with metaphor (I have waited with a glacier’s patience, smashed every transformer with every trailer, ’til nothing was standing), sometimes with doses of hard-nosed reality (The next time you say forever, I’ll punch you in your  face) over whirlwind muscianship. Her brand of country sounds rooted in the west rather than the south, and her songs stop short of radio-friendly hooks but exhibit beautiful melodies in unusual and creative constructions that invite revisiting after each listen.

The opening track, This Tornado Loves You, rushes at the listener like a lover running roughshod in search of her man. With rolling-wheel guitars sounding like banjos, Case and her band churn out a relentless chase over territory that belongs to the heart but evokes the wild center of a storm.

Whether using spare arrangements (many of the songs are co-arranged with her band’s guitarist Paul Rigby) as in The Next Time You Say Forever, Vengeance Is Sleeping and the title track, or with her full band on the uptempo People Got A Lotta Nerve, the ’50s  feel of Fever or the waltz time Magpie To The Morning, the performances are sparkling and appropriate. Of the sparsely played tunes, Middle Cyclone is the most poignant with only voice, guitar and music box.

neko-profile-2The haunting melodies of Polar Nettles and Prison Girls, with its droning guitar and pop sensibilities, stand apart starkly from much of the other material but still work perfectly. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth (a tune by Sparks) plays like an anthem, the background vocals building to a wall of sound by the end. The track also shows Case’s tendency at times toward classical and Celtic sounding melody.

The lovely Harry Nilsson ballad Don’t Forget Me features a piano orchestra of eight players on second-hand pianos in various stages of disrepair, set up in a barn on Case’s Vermont property, where the album was recorded. The sound from the keyboards is drenched in echo as if it were coming from a vast canyon. Despite the funky surroundings of her farm as seen in a promotional video, or perhaps because of it, the album’s production matches the performances throughout – clear, full and distinct.

I’m An Animal is pushed by the driving beat of drummer Barry Mirochnick’s tom-toms on what is probably the album’s heaviest track. Case belts out The Pharaohs in a style reminscent of her tour de force Deep Red Bells from the album Blacklisted. She wrenches everything out of the melody’s sustained notes, sounding like a ringing bell, deep and vibrating. The closer, Red Tide, has Steve Berlin’s keyboard-generated sax section to propel the shuffle feel that Case glides over. There is actually one more cut, more than 31 minutes, of outdoor sounds, either crickets or frogs, Marais La Nuit.

One quibble I have with Case is the length of many of her songs. They’re so short, one clocking in at  1:46 (The Next Time You Say Forever) with most in the two-to-three minute range with the exception of Prison Girls (5:26). This is pretty standard for Case and sometimes I feel a song is not completely developed when it ends or I’m left wanting more of it. But I suppose that’s a good thing. Because that’s what this album does. Makes you want more.

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The lost boys

Boston-area rock ‘n roll legends Barry & the Remains are most noted as a great American band that never quite made it but deserved to.

the-remains-1The Remains were known for their intense live shows and I was lucky enough to see them twice, once in their neighborhood and once as the opening act for the Beatles at Shea Stadium on the Fab Four’s last tour (1966) of the States.

The Remains are the subject of a new documentary, America’s Lost Band, which will be screened at a number of film festivals this year, including the Southeast New England Film, Music & Arts Festival in Providence, R.I., April 2-5. The screening is April 3 at 9:30 p.m., to be followed by a live acoustic performance by the Remains with the original members, Barry Tashian (guitar, vocals), Chip Damiani (drums), Bill Briggs (keyboards) and Vern Miller Jr. (bass).

The first time I saw the Remains was definitely the best. A junior in high school in the spring of 1966, I went up to Boston for the weekend with a bunch of friends (all seniors) to visit the friend of a friend who was at a prep school in the area. He had a friend who was a friend of the Remains, and we went to see them at a mixer in a small hall in a Boston suburb. I had never heard of them.

They were really something. Most of the material was blues-based rock and British Invasion covers with a few originals. We were used to mostly cover bands in Connecticut and the Remains smoked them all. The hall had two levels and we were in the balcony, where the band went in between sets. The group had a Rolling Stones look and sound to some extent, playing covers such as Mercy, Mercy, Like A Rolling Stone and a fiery rave-up of I’m A Man. They sported shoulder-length hair and Stones-like apparel, tight jeans-cut pants and colorful shirts, very British looking. Tashian was quite the front man, singing, playing stinging guitar in a melding of a Chuck Berry/Kinks style and on occasion pulling out a harmonica. At the time, one of the best bands I had seen live.

We met them in between sets. I talked with Barry. He was really nice, and there was some talk among us of trying to get them to come to Connecticut. That never happened.

By the time Shea Stadium rolled around in August, Damiani was gone, replaced by N.D. Smart, and their look had changed dramatically, more Beatle-ish with shorter Beatle cuts and suits to match. From my upper deck right-field perch, I couldn’t really hear them that well. But they went down fine with the crowd.

Several months later, when their album, The Remains, was finally released on Epic, I was a little disappointed. But I wasn’t the only one. It was generally perceived the studio tracks didn’t capture the live excitement of the band. This was a pretty common problem with some groups in the ’60s, getting that live sound on tape. Worse, the band was breaking up as the album was released.

When the album came out on CD with bonus tracks in the ’90s, I appreciated it a little more and I still enjoy most of it, particurlarly the originals Why Do I Cry and Heart and a Billy Vera tune Don’t Look Back. A Sundazed release in the late ’90s of essentially an audition in a Nashville studio for Capitol does a somewhat better job of  portraying the band’s strengths.

Tashian is now based in Nashville and plays and writes in a more country style of music with his wife, Holly. They have recorded five albums, some country award winners. The current Remains are also cut in that mold with a recent album (2002), Movin’ On. Smart went on to play with the late, great Gram Parsons, one of the early country-rock innovators. Tashian also played with Parsons and was in Emmylou Harris’ hot band for nine years.

Oh yeah, the Beatles. How were they? Believe it or not, you could hear the Beatles amid the outrageous screaming and they sounded very good. There is a website, provided by Jerry Lepore, that includes a set list from that show and I remember most of it but I have one quarrel with one of the tunes. I clearly remember Ringo’s spotlight as Yellow Submarine, not I Wanna Be Your Man, because it was disappointingly the only song from Revolver that they played!

The biggest impression, though, was that any time one of them, particularly Paul or John who were on opposite sides of the stage, turned or waved to one half of the stadium, it crested in an ocean of flash bulbs. An image I’ll never forget.

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Concerts Vol. 1

The first in a series that will focus on concerts I’ve seen and serve as companion pieces to the Connecticut rock ‘n roll scene posts I started with Connecticut’s Own and Pulse, Part 2.

butter-1I’ve been to quite a few concerts over the years, many influential, some inspiring. The earliest big venue shows were in the fall of 1965, both at the New Haven Arena. In early November, it was the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones on second guitar in the wake of their summer mega-hit Satisfaction. The Stones sounded and looked great, but it was a relatively sedate performance compared with ones for which the band became infamous. A side note on the Stones show is that the first time they were booked for the Arena, the summer of ’64, the show was actually canceled because of insufficient ticket sales. Amazing. The second show, the Beach Boys with Brian Wilson on bass, on Thanksgiving Day. The Boys wore yellow short-sleeved oxford shirts with gray slacks, not their customary black-and-white and white khakis (I guess because it was a holiday) and with Brian in the fold sounded like angels. Two rather different groups but both rode the singles charts and that’s what drove the music industry at the time.

But the earliest show that made a huge impression on me was in a much smaller venue, the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1967. The headliner was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. But let’s back up a little.

I had been playing bass since 1964 in a couple of garage bands, most notably the Vanguards with Gary Gerard and Peter Neri, whom I would later play with in Bram Rigg Set and Pulse. I also played with and learned quite a bit from the Aiardo brothers, Tony and Peter, from North Haven who played first as the Highlights and later as New England Jam. They played everthing from weddings to proms to clubs such as the House of Zodiac on Route 34 on the West Haven/New Haven line. They were schooled more than most musicians in the area and worked constantly. I’ll never forget a few years later when working with them again temporarily, we played a wedding in the afternoon, a dinner-dance in the early evening and an after-prom into the early hours. This was pretty typical and I learned a great deal from both of them, particularly Peter, who was a brilliant guitarist and was my second bass teacher.

Still as late as spring 1966, I had never heard of Butterfield and found out about him through an unlikely source. I had a very unorthodox chemistry teacher at North Haven High, Peter Kelman, who was young, probably about 23, innovative and interested in a lot more than teaching his students chemistry. He had us do open-ended, special projects once a month that had nothing to do with the subject he taught.

When he found out I was interested in music and was a bass player, he asked me if I’d ever heard anything by Charlie Mingus or the Butterfield Blues Band. I said no, and he told me I should check them out right away. A trip to Cutler’s Music on Broadway in New Haven yielded Blues & Roots by Mingus and the first self-titled Butterfield Blues Band album, with Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitars. I listened to both religiously. Around the same time, I started picking up the Village Voice and by the late fall I noticed Butterfield was scheduled to play the Cafe Au Go Go in the Village.

That was it, I decided I was going. Without my parents knowing where I was headed, I took the family’s blue Chevy Biscayne and along with a friend, Holly Lovig, we headed for Greenwich Village. I knew my way to the West Side Highway, from family trips, and it was fairly easy getting to the village from 14th St. We found the club on Bleeker St., paid for tickets that were probably less than six bucks total and walked down the flight of stairs to the underground club that was no more than a long narrow room with a stage on the left in the center, tables on each side. The stage faced the right wall, so there was only one line of tables directly opposite it. We wound up on the far side of the stage. Alcohol was not served at the club, only large fruit drinks and a large bowl of snacks, potato chips and pretzels.

The opening acts were Richie Havens and Steve Miller, both of whom we had never heard of. Havens was actually well-known in the Village but wouldn’t attract wider interest until his performance at Woodstock near the end of the decade. Miller, I had no idea where he was from.

Havens was startling. I’d never seen anyone quite like him with his intensity, furious open-tuned strumming, slight lisp and unique interpretations of songs such as Dylan’s Just Like A Woman. By the end of his set, he was drenched in sweat and had also played High Flyin’ Bird, from Mixed Bag, an album I later bought.

Miller was an enigma. First his band came out and played a couple of bluesy numbers and sounded good. I would learn later that the band included Boz Scaggs on guitar and Ben Sidran on keyboards, two outstanding musicians who would later produce interesting solo catalogues of their own.

But then Miller came out and it looked like this guy thought he was Elvis Presley or something. I didn’t take to his posturing and sort of I’m a star with my outrageous stage presence attitude. I was unimpressed. I don’t have anything against Miller particularly and later appreciated, though never loved, some of his ’70s tunes. But that night, he just didn’t make it.

Then came Butterfield and I’d never seen anything like it. These guys were so competent, tight, powerful and playing a different brand of the blues, electrified but tasteful. I have often felt this band, which although sometimes labeled a white blues band was always integrated, never got as much credit as it deserved for being the major influence on the American blues and rock scene. Live, they were something else.

Being a bass player, I appreciated Jerome Arnold and their new drummer Billy Davenport, who had replaced Sam Lay following the first album. But what stood out were Bloomfield, who was facing directly toward the back of the club opposite us, playing a gold top Les Paul and the sound of Butterfield’s harmonica, which was gigantic. It was so big, it sounded like a horn, like a sax or something. It was commanding. Bishop was solid on mostly rhythm guitar, but his time would come later.

They played Born In Chicago, Shake Your Money-Maker, Look Over Yonders Wall and Mystery Train  from their first album, but the most interesting material was from the second, East-West, released in August. Work Song, which had been in their repertoire for a while was an instrumental workout for all the solists, including Bishop, and crescendoed to an intense call-and-answer among all four players, Butter, Bloomfield, Bishop and keyboardist Mark Naftalin.

butter-2The highlight, though, was another instrumental, the album’s title cut East-West, a piece that had Indian influences before many groups started incorporating them. It was played modally rather than over a series of chord changes and was longer than the 13-minute album track. Bloomfield took it down to a whisper twice after the other soloists and built it to a chaotic, wailing wall of sound. Bloomfield’s sound was something in between the woman tone made popular by English guitarists Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, who were starting to push amplification, and a reverb-drenched quality reminiscent of the Chicago sound. It was more of a screaming tone. Although I’ve always liked his playing and held great admiration for him, he was not among my top favorites in the long run. But on this night he was on fire and his creativity and intensity during this phase of the band has always stayed with me. I felt as good as his playing was with Butterfield, he reached a high as someone who fit into an ensemble perfectly with his own band the Electric Flag, which was never quite captured faithfully in the studio the way it sounded live.

There is an album on Winner Records that’s still available called East-West Live, produced by Naftalin from recordings he made of nightclub performances with a portable tape recorder. It has three versions of the piece showing the development of the Bloomfield composition from early 1966 to winter 1967 .

I would see Butterfield many times over the next few years and almost every time the makeup of his band would change. I went to see him at the Au Go Go around Thanksgiving break 1967 with Bishop now the centerpiece and Bugsy Maugh on bass, Phil Wilson, drums, Naftalin and a horn section of David Sanborn, alto sax, Gene Dinwiddie, tenor and Keith Johnson, trumpet. Later in Boston that winter I caught him at the Pyschedelic Supermarket, essentially an underground garage, the Back Bay Theatre and that summer at Oakdale in Wallingford with about the same band. They played Oakdale the next summer, Bishop gone by this time, replaced by a young, precocious Buzzy Feiten. Despite the personnel changes, each time the band didn’t disappoint.

That first time though was quite an experience for a high school senior. I’ll never forget the ride home, which was in pea soup fog most of the way, arriving at about 3 a.m. I don’t really understand how I got away with that, taking the car to New York, getting back so late and never being questioned, but somehow I did. It certainly would have been worth it no matter what.

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Astral return for Van the Man

Last fall, when I read Van Morrison would be revisiting his acknowledged masterpiece Astral Weeks in a live performance at the Hollywood Bowl, I was startled. Morrison has rarely played any of the tunes from the 1968 album in a live performance during his five-decade career. In fact, known for his sometimes surly attitude on stage, it’s been reported more than a few times that he’s scoffed at audience requests for some of those tunes admonishing “I don’t play those songs anymore.”

astralliveHe’s also known to be, at times, a tempermental live artist. I saw him play at  Lake Compounce in Bristol, CT in the early ’90s when that venue put on concerts. The highlight of the show was when Morrison wasn’t even on stage. At the time, jazz-pop vocalist Georgie Fame, who had several worldwide hits in the ’60s including Yeh, Yeh and The Ballad Of Bonnie & Clyde, was leading Van’s band. Fame came out alone and played two songs accompanying himself on Hammond B-3, Willie Dixon’s I Love The Life I Live in a Mose Allison style and Yeh, Yeh, both outstanding solo renditions. Van then came out, played a 50-minute set, left the stage and did not return despite a standing ovation.

He’s also been known for giving brilliant live performances and he looks positively happy on the cover of the CD release for Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl, which will also be released on DVD (no date yet). There’s good reason. Morrison returns to this unique and inspired collection of songs and adds something new to each of them, starting with his impassioned, eccentric vocal phrasing to the impeccable arrangements for the ensemble, which expands on the original six-piece lineup.

The performance stays true to the acoustic concept of the original album but adds two acoustic guitars, including Jay Berliner who played on Astral Weeks, to Van’s acoustic, grand piano by Roger Kellaway, a member of several of Van’s bands in the past three decades, Paul Moran’s trumpet to Morrison stalwart Richie Buckley on flute and sax, and a four-piece string section, two violins, two violas.  Longime band member David Hayes plays upright bass and iconic Van guitarist John Platania, who played on some of Morrison’s great early ’70s work, is added on two non-Astral Weeks tracks along with backing vocalist Bianca Thornton.

Morrison also loves to interpolate songs and he does this on Astral Weeks with I Believe I’ve Transcended, Slim Slow Slider/I Start Breaking Down, Cypress Avenue/You Came Walking Down, Ballerina/Move On Up and one of the encores Listen To The Lion/The Lion Speaks.

Morrison’s voice is in great shape for this outing. His lyrics are often almost unintelligible, except for the track Beside You on which he enunciates letter perfect throughout, but that is a defining trait to his vocal stylings. No one has mastered the combination of scatting and vamping on a single line over and over as well as Morrison, lending multiple meanings to a repeated lyric as in his stutter over “my tongue gets tired’ in Cypress Avenue. Truly one of our great R&B singers of the past half-century.

In many ways, each song is not only updated but somehow improved a little over the original. He makes use of a 6/8 jazz waltz on three of the tunes – Astral Weeks, Sweet Thing and The Way Young Lovers Do – and they all swing.

All the soloists are inventive and interesting, including a section of Slim Slow Slider in which three are back-to-back, including Buckley’s frantic alto sax. Sweet Thing features a poignant and fleeting string accompaniment, including Tony Fitzgibbon’s violin solo, and Morrison pulls out the harmonica to good effect on the tag.

Vibraphone is added to the opening of The Way That Young Lovers Do, a jazz waltz groove that burns for a scant three minutes, accented by tasteful strings and horns. Ballerina and Madame George complete the Astral portion of the set, leading into the first encore Listen To The Lion. It would be difficult to improve on the Saint Dominic’s Preview’s version of Lion, which breathes and swells as a living entity. This one doesn’t but is a fine rendition with complementing strings and Morrison’s mouthy harp in the instrumental section.

Common One, the second encore, is perhaps the highlight of the set. Morrison’s call-and-answer lyrics with Buckley, something they perfected in the ’80s and ’90s, is riveting and drives to a scorching Buckley solo before a reprise on the lyrics.

The last time I saw Morrison was at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, CT on a tour in support of 2002’s Down The Road, one of his best albums from this decade. That night, as on this recording, Morrison was in fine form and good humor, perhaps because of the addition of Solomon Burke, who opened for him and joined him on Fast Train.

It’s forty years on since Astral Weeks, an album that didn’t sell that well on first release but almost instantly became one of the most influential records of all time. This release is a wonderful reminder of that touchstone work and does the original justice and more. Rave on, Van, rave on.

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