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!

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