Friday, March 22, 2013
Canadian Roundup Part Three - The Guess Who, Lenny Breau and THE BAND!
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……….
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:
…..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.
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.
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!