Posts Tagged ‘blues-rock

06
Apr
09

From the Vaults: Hidden Treasure, No. 2

After writing about Martha Velez’s 1968 release Fiends & Angels, I realized there are a number of albums that qualify as either era-defining or being highly influencial despite not having gained widespread recognition. These records weren’t huge sellers on first release but still made an impact, mostly with musicians, and all stand up today.

full-moon-albumThe self-titled album Full Moon from 1971 fits into this category. Three of its members came from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, drummer Phillip Wilson and tenor saxman Gene Dinwiddie (billed as Brother Gene Dinwiddie throughout the album’s credits), both of whom joined Butterfield around 1967 for The Resurrection Of Pigboy Crabshaw, and Buzz Feiten, who joined Butter a little later in ’68 replacing guitarist Elvin Bishop. Feiten, who did a stint with the Rascals after Butterfield, was one of the most unusual additions to Butterfield’s band, younger than most of the other players, precocious, almost punk for 1968. He brought a different sound and style and great versatility to the band with his piercing Fender Strat, cut more from a soul vein than blues.

They joined forces in 1971 with keyboardist Neil Larsen, from Florida, who later in the ’70s would record a string of exemplary jazz-fusion albums and also delve into pop rock with Feiten in 1980 as the Larsen-Feiten Band, and bassist Freddie Beckmeier. Over the years, Larsen and Feiten have also become legendary session players who have worked on hundreds of albums and with a who’s who of the music industry.

The resulting album, produced by Alan Douglas (yes, that Alan Douglas apparently, famous or perhaps infamous as onetime keeper of the Jimi Hendrix archive) was far from a blues-rock workout. It incorporated elements of soul, R&B and early jazz fusion built on strong songwriting from all members. Vocals were shared and more than capable and the playing a combination of forward-moving jazz, rock and soul with proficient and inspired soloing.

Bassist extraordinaire Dave Holland (Miles Davis’ In  A Silent Way) played on one of the original cuts and wrote and played on a bonus track, Three Step Dance, from a Japanese CD import release from 2000, produced and mixed by Feiten. Other guests include trumpet player Randy Brecker, percussionists Airto Moreira and Ray Baretto and background singers Robin Clark and Tasha Thomas.

The album opens with the band composition The Heavy Shuffle’s On, a rollicking, funky and mostly instrumental track that features Feiten on typically inventive solos. Feiten is always melodic in his approach and this cut finds him expressive and concise, using a wah-wah for his second chorus. The unison group vocals remind one in style of Butterfield’s Love March from Keep On Moving (1969), an album on which Feiten played.

Feiten has two songs both cut from the same cloth, To Know and Need Your Love, the first a funky moderate tempo love song, sung by Wilson. The tune, which features the background singers prominently, including Feiten in the chorus, was the album’s single. Feiten also contributes a tasteful solo with a squeaky clean, Strat tone. Need Your Love juxtaposes a free-time chorus embellished with the backup singers’ rich harmonies, and an uptempo funk/soul verse on which Feiten takes a vocal turn. Beckmeier and Wilson’s soulful interplay in the verse helps lay down a smooth, danceable groove. No solos in this radio-friendly take.

Feiten also co-wrote the album’s closer with Wilson, Selfish People, another moderate groove that builds with intensity behind Wilson’s driving rhythm. The sound of this cut is expansive and contemplative, developing slowly with an extended intro that lasts more than three minutes and features intricate stylings of Larsen’s keyboards with Dinwiddie’s soprano sax and Feiten on acoustic guitar. You can hear shades of future Steely Dan in the changes. Feiten’s solo on the tag is one of his best on the record.

Among an album of highlights, Dinwiddie contributes perhaps the peak with Take This Winter Out Of My Mind, cut in an infectious,  funk groove with a rousing, catchy chorus. Dinwiddie delivers a heartfelt vocal as well as mandolin over a tune with perhaps the deepest lyrical content on the album. Larsen solos on electric piano, followed by a double Feiten lead, two guitars panned extreme left and right. Clark and Thomas are stellar on vocal support.

Not to give them short shrift, perhaps the two most interesting tracks are Larsen’s instrumentals, Malibu, on which Holland plays, and Midnight Pass. Both would be perfectly at home on one of Larsen’s later fusion albums, particularly Jungle Fever, which probably deserves a place in this vault of its own. Larsen’s tunes are cool jazz with almost always a latin flavor, built on irresistible and beautifully constructed melodies.

The Malibu melody is played in unison on flute (Dinwiddie), guitar and organ and has a light but penetrating feel. Feiten and Larsen each take solo turns, with Larsen on electric piano. Midnight Pass is latin-infused with the melody played on guitar, sax and organ. Again Larsen goes to electric piano for his solo and is followed by Feiten, who as you can see really dominates the album in solo time. But that’s a joy. It’s one of the best examples of his prodigious talent and as he says in the 2000 notes “probably the most important period in my own musical development.” Dinwiddie’s tenor also gets a workout on this track. The solos throughout the original record are always understated but still give each player enough room for creativity, nothing extended.

The bonus track on the CD release is straight jazz with long, extended solos. You can see why it wasn’t used, if it was even intended, for this album. But it’s a nice addition nonetheless with outstanding playing. There is tension and immediacy that distances itself from the other tracks and gives it a feel in line with what Weather Report became known for. This is also one of Douglas’ best production jobs among many very good ones that predate his Hendrix involvement, which had mixed results.

I had this album for years on reel-to-reel tape, a copy I made with my trusty TEAC four-track simul-synch deck from a friend’s vinyl copy. I was estatic in 2000 when it became available and quite willing to pay $30 on the Amazon Markeplace for the Japanese import, knowing many Japanese discs go for much higher. Sadly, it’s already out of print and is fetching from $40-$60 on the Marketplace now. It’s one of my favorites and would be worth every penny at these prices.

As for a vinyl copy, I couldn’t find a single listing on popsike or eBay. Yet Tim Neely’s American Records Guide lists its value at $15. Your best bet might be record fairs, some of which still come to Connecticut periodically, but you might have to shell out more than $15.

I pull this album out every so often and never tire of it. Listening again as I write this piece, it still sounds so fresh and relevant. Strong songwriting, quality vocals and inventive playing that sounds far ahead of its time.

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22
Mar
09

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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