Friday, March 22, 2013

Canadian Roundup Part Three - The Guess Who, Lenny Breau and THE BAND!

I decided to round off my spotlight on Great Canadians by reflecting on two groups and one significant musician from the Great White North – all of whom are linked, however circuitously. Thanks must go to my good friend Ken for the suggestion and loan of his rare CD of The Guess Who – Let’s Go. This is an awesome release from Randy Bachman’s archives. Let’s Go was, in fact, the title of a television program the Canadian Broadcasting Company produced to showcase musical talent – mainly of the popular variety – specifically in and around Winnepeg in the late 60s. Other regions had their own shows, but this one featured The Guess Who as the official house band. What the BBC radio shows did for The Beatles’ career in the UK, the CBC television network would do for The Guess Who – provide priceless national exposure.

The collection is fascinating since the group performs cover versions of current hits – as The Beatles did on their BBC shows. Some covers work better than others – their take on “Along Comes Mary” is pretty rockin’ while their version of “Hey Jude”, however ambitious, sounds unconvincing. But it sure is wild to hear them covering Cream’s “White Room” (they don’t exactly manage to pull off the 7/4 introduction, but it still rocks!). Where the group really shines is with their original material. In the liner notes, it is mentioned how the TV show’s producer encouraged the group to develop their own songs – probably the best advice and encouragement they ever got! The disc contains some of their later hits (“These Eyes”) in embryonic form. Aside from spotlighting the great guitar work of Bachman, the other pleasant surprise is how Burton Cummings navigates his way through all kinds of different vocal styles and delivers the goods!

Although I’d heard The Guess Who’s hits for years, it was only recently that I heard the full “American Woman” album – in this case a quadraphonic 8-track tape. The whole record is solid overall, showing that the group could offer more beyond the hit single. In fact, quite a few of their many albums saw release as quadraphonic records or tapes. Considering how much I enjoyed American Woman, I’m definitely on the lookout for more from The Guess Who – especially QUAD versions!

Randy Bachman eventually left The Guess Who to form Bachman Turner Overdrive. Considering how he was gifted with two hit-making groups one right after the other, he is one lucky dude for sure! In recent years, he’s been digging in his archives to release material not just from The Guess Who, but even from a guy he grew up with who later became a major jazz guitar figure of the 20th Century – Lenny Breau……….

I would never have heard of Lenny Breau if it weren’t for my friendship with Murali Coryell. We went to college together and had a nice little rocking teenage combo for a few years. Murali loved Lenny Breau and he passed that onto me though a great CD – “Five O’clock Bells”. Lenny Breau was a child prodigy and developed a technique where he could sound like two guitar players at once. I’m still on the lookout for more of his music, but “Five O’Clock Bells” is a whole lot of magical vibrations to deal with. Here’s a link to a cool interview with Randy Bachman who tells what it was like to grow up being friends with Lenny Breau:

Now, I don’t know all of Breau’s story, but there is mystery surrounding his death in the mid-80s. Somehow related to not having totally conquered his demons. Dang shame. A bunch of years back I was driving along down a local highway and was picking up a jazz program on a nearby college radio station. There was some pretty tasty electric guitar stuff on, with a basic yet swinging backing from bass and drums. After several cuts went by, the DJ got on the air to announce the artists. He announced the guitar player as Lenny Breau – wow….nice! Seems this was an early recording that had just been released after being pulled out of an obscure archive. But when the drummer and bass player were announced I nearly drove off the road…………….Levon Helm and Rick Danko? Say WHAT!?

Now, I’m talkin’ straight ahead jazz. Nothing fancy, but absolutely in the pocket and in the style. I thought the DJ made a mistake until I looked it up – indeed the release is called “The Hallmark Sessions” and features what was then the rhythm section of Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks – later to become THE BAND. Seems that Levon and Rick were known to Lenny and he asked them to back him up on his first professional recording. Here’s what the CD cover looks like:
This, of course, leads to the next collection of great Canadians – The Band! Now, to be fair – most of The Band was from Canada with the exception of Levon who hailed from Arkansas and wound up in the Great White North courtesy of his then-boss Ronnie Hawkins. I have to admit it took me a little while to fully appreciate The Band. I’d had a copy of The Last Waltz since I was a teenager, but not any of the classic albums. I kept reading about how influential “Music From Big Pink” was and borrowed a copy from a friend just to hear it. At first it sounded to me like a bunch of woozy, bearded mountain men yodelling out of tune about God-knows-what to God-knows-who.

Then, years later I chanced upon an original US Capitol pressing – with the rainbow colorband Capitol label – at a flea market. It was in nice shape and for three bucks – well, why not? Took it home, started playing it and gradually I started growing a beard. I started taking long, meaningful walks in the woods. Communing with nature – listening to the leaves turn brown and orange and gold. I woke up in an abandoned blueberry patch with the sun in my eyes and the cool autumn breeze in my hair. I built my own log cabin in the middle of the Catskills, sowed my seeds and harvested my crops and lived to be 97.5 years old – spending my last days reminiscing about the minstrel shows that used to come through town and pitch a big tent on the outskirts where the moonshiners would rustle up some fun with the locals throwing dice and roasting chestnuts and pork and beans over the campfire using a crimped cup tin can for coffee and………and………

…..excuse me! “Big Pink” isn’t an album. It’s an echo of a long-lost time with flying saucers in the foreground. It’s the sound of Robbie the Robot bashing on a ukulele and Grandpa Jones playing his spoons on the head of a nuclear missile. Really, “Big Pink” is all about context. In the context of the times – 1968 – there was no popular music quite like it. Rootsy Americana-esque with a slight futuristic twinkle in its eye. Full of mystery and weirdness – legends and folktales told by Neil Armstrong’s drinking buddies.

My vinyl copy is an early pressing and has all the funk you can expect to find on a Capitol LP of the era – muffled, EQ-mud and all. When I eventually got my hands on the MFSL gold disc, I swore up and down it was a remix since it sounded so different. But, no – I reckon the MFSL is just a cleaner mastering (which one sounds like the master tape is up for grabs – couldn’t tell you). Happy to have it, but it sure is different from the LP – depending on my mood it could be one or the other.

No entry on The Band would be complete without mention of THE BAND (aka “The Brown Album”). This was their second, and arguably, best album. If “Big Pink” was the mystery disc of 1968, THE BAND was the mystery revealed with still enough of the magical haze lingering to evoke other realities and dimensions, yet in an oddly commercially appealing wrapper. Great music – classic stuff – harvest time in full combine mode. This album really deserves its own entry. I have three copies of this.
An original US pressing (green Captiol target label) mastered by Bob Ludwig (note the “RL” in the deadwax). This is not in the best of shape – and not exactly a wonderful pressing despite the “RL” – the mastering is top notch, the pressing quality typical of that good old late 60s / early 70s Capitol re-ground vinyl.

Thank goodness Audio Fidelity put out a nice gold CD – mastered from the original master tapes – that sounds AWESOME. It might be getting a bit pricey now, but still well worth the bucks if you love this record.
The third copy I have was an expensive UK vinyl reissue from 1997 or so – cut from a tape a few generations away from the master and not bad, but no better than the above two. Served me well until the gold CD came out.

Now, there are other Band LPs – some high points here and there. Yet they never returned to the glory of those first two albums. The best place to find out why is covered in Levon Helm’s great book “This Wheel’s On Fire”. It’s a great read – full of funny and heartbreaking stories. I’m sorry I never got to see Levon – never bumped into him either. I did meet Rick Danko once, but maybe that story is best for another time. How these Canadian guys became superstars is quite an amazing tale. Other famous Canadians would follow, but for me – Neil, Joni, Randy, Lenny and the Band crew are the real deal. O – Canada! Thanks for the vibrations!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Joni Mitchell

Nope - sorry! That's not Taylor Swift. This is a great picture of the original acoustic-wielding blonde Joni Mitchell. Taylor Swift could do well to consider what musical genius is really all about and spend some time with the great body of work Joni has left for us to hear!

I don’t know what prompted this. I was thinking the other day about how Joni Mitchell re-connected with her daughter, whom she gave up for adoption before her career took off in the late 60s. This was in 1997 or so – quite awhile ago now. I think I was looking for some clips of Joni on youtube from recent times. She is always interesting to listen to – musically or philosophically. Now, I don’t have all of her stuff. But I have a good chunk of it. Some of her more recent efforts have slipped by me – although I did manage to keep up in the 90s (the 80s were a bit tough to get into – I’ll probably rediscover that stuff eventually). Then I stumbled upon some footage of Joni re-uniting with her daughter. Gadzooks – talk about a transformation. In some of those clips it’s obvious how literally overjoyed Joni Mitchell is. Heartwarming indeed.

Contrast with another clip of Joni Mitchell performing in what looks to me like the Bitter End club in New York City. The video claims the date to be about 1967 and I have a hunch that’s correct (witness the Blues Project bass drum head on the kit behind her). The song she is singing would not be released commercially until her fourth LP – Blue – in 1971. Yet, the song – Little Green – was complete in this early clip which predates her signing with Reprise Records (her first LP came out in ’68 I believe).

What I never knew about this song is that it is a direct telling of Joni’s decision to give up her daughter for adoption – which only happened two years before this performance (possibly less). Holy Christalmighty I cannot imagine what’s going on inside her mind during this performance. Her fateful decision was a carefully guarded secret for most of her adult life. Very few, if ANY, people knew just how personal this song was until the 1990s. In an age where everything hits the internet as soon as it happens these days – it’s amazing how long some secrets could be protected by even the most public figures.

Joni Mitchell is a great singer, songwriter and indeed – guitar player! She’s got a great technique – one of the most interesting right-hand techniques I’ve ever seen. Take a look at this clip of her in 1979 – the song is “Amelia” from the Shadows and Light tour with the great jazzbos (Jaco, etc…..) backing her up. Yet this is a solo performance. She’s got those long fingernails and uses them nimbly on that big box electric. Besides technique – I saw the Shadows and Light film a bunch of years back when I bought it on DVD. When the video got to this song – which I hadn’t been familiar with at the time – it stopped me cold. It’s the emotional high point of the film. I was going through a particularly rough point in my life and, although the lyrics to the song are oblique – the emotional theme is clearly all about DEVASTATING LOSS. Joni Mitchell has a bunch of those kinds of songs in her catalog – of course it’s well known now where that emotion springs from……….

Funny though. I’d been a Joni Mitchell fan since I first heard “Big Yellow Taxi” on the radio – her version (no snazzy cover versions existed in those days). It was such a catchy song – I was real buzzed to find it on the “Ladies of the Canyon” album. I got that along with her first record – “Song to a Seagull”. Over the years I kept adding LPs. I think I picked up the “Blue” album because Big Al Anderson from NRBQ name-checked it as a favorite record of his (I’m NOT making this up – seriously! I read this once!). Pretty early on I also picked up a lesser-known LP – “For the Roses”. I have to admit – it’s not one of my favorite Joni LPs, but it does have some nice moments on it. “For the Roses” was her first LP on Asylum Records, but it had the misfortune of being the LP released between “Blue” – her last for Reprise for quite a while – and the classic “Court and Spark”. But there was a fairly provocative picture of Joni on the inside flap of the “For the Roses” album……………..

Basically – she’s nude with her back to the camera and her front facing the crashing waves of the ocean. Very picturesque, back to nature and peace-n-love – not meant to be anything more than what it is. Now, this is where my story gets a little awkward. Having observed womens’ bodies over the course of my time on the planet – mostly clothed, but still – it really appeared to me that what I was looking at ………… look, when women have children their bodies can change and it can be obvious if one is inclined to notice. Not that this is at all bad – certainly not. But I couldn’t help thinking – there’s something to the way she looks here. Yet I hadn’t read up to that point anything about Joni Mitchell having children. I really thought this all through long before the story came out about her daughter. Seriously!

Well, I’d have to admit there certainly was / is something about Joni Mitchell’s looks I appreciated – she’s certainly distinctive, but I like her! Yeah! In fact – I had a girlfriend years ago who was a dead-ringer for Joni Mitchell (and an exceptionally great gal too – fond memories). In fact, she reminded me a LOT of Joni Mitchell – independent spirit and all. Uncanny, in fact.

I hate to admit this – I don’t yet have her 2007 release – “Shine”. I really must amend this situation. I’d been keeping up with Joni pretty decently through her “Taming the Tiger” album in 1998. After that there seemed to be these endless “Greatest Hits” packages – she effectively retired from the music biz until “Shine” appeared. I was especially smitten with her 1991 LP “Night Ride Home”. Great record that was! And phooey on all those knuckleheads who want to criticize the change to her voice in recent years – I think it’s still beautiful, even though its different – dark and dusky. I can dig it. I also terribly regret not seeing her perform in 1994 at the old Woodstock site in Bethel, NY. That summer there was a concert held called “A Day in the Garden” and Joni performed – an increasingly rare event in those days and – sad to say – a nigh impossibility now. Dangit. I knew I should have gone.

Since then – there have been tributes – Herbie Hancock had a Grammy-winning CD out with Joni’s music on it a few years back. Well deserved. She was a pioneering spirit – and a real advocate for authentic American music (American as in all of the Americas, really). Like I said……I don’t know what brought all this on. I really just admire her talent and spirit – her ability to turn heartache into art – and the magic of time to heal old wounds. She’s got quite a life story there. Lets hope some exceptional writer does her story justice in a nice biography some day. Until then – STILL LISTENING!