Guitarists who don’t waste notes are a rare breed. They’re even rarer in the world of jambands and summer tours, which is where Charlie Hunter made his mark. As you would expect from a guy who tacked on a couple of extra strings to bolster the low end of his six-string model, groove is his thing. In doing so, he invented his own style of music, equal parts jazz, reggae, funk and vintage soul. And he can be hilarious. His latest excellent, characteristically eclectic album Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched is streaming at Spotify. Hunter and his fantastic quartet have a two-night stand coming up on March 8 and 9 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $15. The last time this blog was in the house there, they weren’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum, a good thing since Hunter’s crowd is more likely to smoke than get wasted on the Rockwood’s expensive drinks.
The album opens with the title track, a slow, comfortable swing blues with a characteristically wry, bubbling Curtis Fowlkes trombone solo; then cornetist Kirk Knuffke signals that all may not be so cool after all. Drummer Bobby Previte’s emphatic, tersely swinging slow triplet groove anchors the second track, Looks Like Someone Got Ahead of Schedule on Their Medication, which opens with an amusingly woozy voicings from Fowlkes and Knuffke, then takes a detour to New Orleans before the meds kick in again.
Staccato horns add spice to Leave Him Lay, a mid-80s Grateful Dead style blues fueled by Previte’s swinging, almost disco drive and Hunter’s spiky, Bob Weir-ish chords. We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent is an uneasily swaying midtempo noir theme, like Big Lazy with horns and a long, purposefully crescendoing blues solo from the bandleader. Then Hunter gets even more retro with Big Bill’s Blues, ostensibly a Big Bill Broonzy homage. beginning starkly and then shifting into jubilant Crescent City territory with some artful counterpoint from the horns.
The darkly simmering soul theme Latin for Travelers is a vehicle for a contrastingly bright solo from Knuffke and then Fowlkes, dipping down to just the horns and then back for extra dynamic punch. No Money No Honey is as hard as the funk gets here, although it’s more of a swing tune: everybody in the band, especially Previte, is having a ball with this one.
Who Put You Behind the Wheel opens as a spaciously tiptoeing, Asian-tinged excursion, then morphs into reggae, with a trick ending. The looseness and freeness of Wish I Was Already Paid and On My Way Home mask its relentlessly dark, distantly klezmer-tinged undercurrent . The album winds up with the jaunty, dixieland-ish second-line march The Guys Get Shirts. This works on every level, as first-rate jazz, blues and psychedelia.
Cameron Mizell is the great pastoral jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell. Like Frisell, he has a laser sense for a catchy hook, a spacious approach to melody, a fondness for the unconventional and a flair for the lurid that occasionally bares its fangs from deep in the shadows. Mizell’s latest album Negative Space – streaming at Destiny Records – is a trio effort with multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters. Mizell is playing the small room at the Rockwood on March 13 at 7 PM.
The album’s opening miniature sets the stage, a brief, resonant Frisell-style tone poem of sorts, just a couple of tersely exploratory guitar tracks and a little cymbal work from Salters. Big Tree takes those hints of unbridled gorgeousness and, to paraphrase Richard Thompson, really brushes those treetops, a series of soul-infused echo phrases. The slowly swaying Yesterday’s Troubles, Mizell’s distorted riffage paired with Whiteley’s echoey Rhodes piano, sounds like Beninghove’s Hangmen covering a set piece from Quincy Jones’ In the Heat of the Night soundtrack.
Likewise, Whiskey for Flowers hints that Mizell’s going to plunge into Marc Ribot noir, but instead hits a warmly vamping pastorale shuffle that builds to an unexpectedly sweet Jerry Garcia-ish peak (it’s inspired by couple-bonding: Mizell’s wife has come to share his appreciation for the hard stuff). By contrast, Take the Humble is a crescendoing funk shuffle that owes more to Booker T than to, say, Scofield, especially when it comes to Whiteley’s organ solo.
Mizell builds a slow burn over Whiteley’s ominously circular Philip Glassine piano phrases on the album’s cinematic centerpiece, Clearing Skies, rising to David Gilmour epic grandeur, Whiteley channeling blues through the prism of REM balladry. Don’t laugh: it works. Likewise, Get It While You Can, a punchier take on the Grateful Dead version of the old folk song Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.
Barter reaches from spare and then expansive Booker T-ish verses toward Pink Floyd grandeur. A Song About a Tree would be a standout track on any Frisell album, a luscious song without words assembled from catchy electrified bluegrass hooks, drifting matter-of-factly further into space. Unfolding has such an odd rhythm – at heart, it’s a reggae anthem – that it almost seems like the drum was a last-minute overdub. The album’s title cut has an ECM feel, Whiteley’s waves of piano building and then receding way too soon: it could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would complain. The final track is part Dark Side of the Moon majesty, part cinematic Ribot menace. Beyond the tunesmithing here, the absence of bass makes this a great practice record.
In 1964, Jerry Garcia and some friends took a road trip east to hear bluegrass music. Among those bands was the legendary Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, whom they got to see more than once on that trip. Almost fifty years later, that band’s mandolinist Jesse McReynolds has recorded an album of Grateful Dead songs – some circles just won’t be broken. Still vital at 81, McReynolds doesn’t sound anywhere near his age, vocally or picking-wise, alternating between long, soulfully expansive solos and the incisive, edgy playing that’s influenced literally generations of musicians. Here he’s joined by a crew including the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s David Nelson on guitar, Randy Brown on bass, Stu Allen on acoustic guitar, Shawn Apple on drums and assorted other players. For those who find the concept of this album absolutely mystifying, the real shocker is that it actually works. Which it should. McReynolds got into the Country Music Hall of Fame on the first ballot: his presence here brings out the best in the supporting cast, who don’t waste any notes throughout a surprisingly varied mix of bluegrass, oldtimey Appalachian folk and straight-up, mellow Americana rock. On his solos, Nelson does an impressive job evoking Jerry’s signature, meandering, scale-based style without going completely over the top.
McReynolds characteristically nails the emotion of every vocal here: the plaintive lament vibe of Black Muddy River – which perfectly captures the folk song feel that Jerry was going for – along with the lonesomeness of Bird Song – an eight-minute version with terse interplay between mandolin and acoustic guitar – and especially the bitter cynicism of Loser, done here far more tensely and faster than the original. Likewise, The Wheel gets a counterintuitively vigorous treatment, layers of hypnotic electric guitar against McReynolds’ long, spiky, gently wintry staccato solo. Some of these songs evoke the Dead on the Reckoning album, especially a swinging version of Ripple. Others rock out a lot more than you’d expect from this crew, notably a darkly pedal steel-tinged Stella Blue and a violin-fueled Fire on the Mountain with yet another devastating vocal from McReynolds – he really gets these songs. By the time they get to Deep Elem Blues, they’re completely in their element: McReynolds makes it clear that it’s a cautionary tale!
Not everything here works: a brand-new co-write between McReynolds and Robert Hunter sounds like a mid-70s outtake, and the big anthemic concert singalongs Franklin’s Tower and Deal swing and miss when they try to the energy up a notch. But their version of Alabama Getaway is a knockout, done as a straight-ahead country shuffle rather than trying to imitate the second-generation Chuck Berryisms of the original. Who is the audience for this? Deadheads, obviously, as many as are left after all these years. And for that matter any fan of the new crop of Americana bands, from Mumford & Sons to Deer Tick. The Dead may be history now, but the music never stopped. This one’s out on the independent Woodstock Records label.
One of the challenges of writing about music is to be quick enough to spot a genuine classic when it appears. This is one of them. Raw yet ornate, ferocious yet intricate, Norden Bombsight’s debut album Pinto hails back to the early 70s but adds a snarling, desperate punk edge that’s uniquely their own. It’s sort of the missing link between Pink Floyd and Joy Division. It’s art-rock, but it’s not prog; it boils over with anguished intensity, but it’s not goth. The current band they most closely resemble is New York gypsy-punk-art-rockers Botanica. Guitarist David Marshall plays with a raw, vintage 70s tone that enhances his unhinged, fiery attack on the strings over the nimble, melodic, shapeshifting rhythm section of Jonathan Gundel on bass, Julian Morello on drums and Derrick Barnicoat on percussion, loops and processing. Frontwoman Rachael Bell holds down centerstage with a savagely beautiful, wounded wail, adding starkly eerie keyboard textures as well as incisive mandolin. Norden Bombsight’s lyrics match their music, fragmented, ominous and disquieting. This is an after-dark album, one that resonates best by the light of a distant streetlight, or no light at all.
Like a vinyl record, it has a side one and a side two, each of them a suite. Side one opens with a dark, stately three-chord progression, the backup alarm on a garbage truck screeching evil, mechanical and assaultive in the distance, building to a desperate gallop and eventually back again, evoking late 70s noir art-rock cult favorites the Doctors of Madness. The song segues into Four on the Lawn, a feedback loop fading up to Bell’s accusative, Siouxsie-esque vocals over a reverberating, swaying march, burning David Gilmour-esque guitar chords against upper-register piano. Another segue takes them to Help Desk, noir cabaret as Procol Harum might have done it, Bell’s organ and then electric piano holding gentle but firm against the stately punch of the guitars, which finally cut loose in a forest of wild tremolo picking at the end.
Side two begins with a pretty lullaby for solo electric guitar, followed by the towering, 6/8 anthem The Raven. “You won’t have my yellow hair/Lay me down to rest/You left me there,” Bell laments. “I’ll never get you back to the town of West Haven” – whatever that means. Marshall’s reverb-drenched tremolo guitar climbs with an unleashed fury, and then back down again into Snakes, which with its staggered, tango-ish beat and southwestern gothic ambience reminds of the Walkabouts. The band brings it up, then down again, into the scorching Nektar-style stomp of Altercation, shifting time signatures unexpectedly into a wild, circular organ-and-guitar-fueled jam straight out of Remember the Future, and an unexpectedly funky outro. Catchy and resolutely swaying, Virgil evokes the Grateful Dead, but not so grateful now that they’re in Hades: “Virgil, you’re out of your jurisdiction, now you’re just another man with a gun,” snarls Marshall. The album ends with its most overtly Pink Floyd-influenced number, slide guitar blasting like an August sunset over blacktop. And then it stops cold.
As intense as this album is, Norden Bombsight are even better live. They play Matchless tonight at eleven; watch this space for future shows.
Every day, our Top 666 Songs of Alltime countdown gets one step closer #1. Monday’s song is #206:
The Grateful Dead – Bertha
The prototypical janglerock anthem, the Dead at their best and tersest – what a killer riff. Bertha (probably not her real name) was a groupie; this is an understated message to her to stay the fuck away. Look for a bootleg (and avoid the debacle on the Steal Your Face album) – may we suggest Sept 1991 at Madison Square Garden? Or else check archive.org.
As regulars here know by now, Lucid Culture HQ is undergoing some big renovations and for that reason we have to leave this site more or less in limbo until about the middle of October when we return with more of the stuff you may have grown accustomed to: the NYC live music calendar, cd and concert reviews, Song of the Day and our Tuesday Top Ten Songs list. This will also serve as a test of sorts to see how much traffic we get while there’s not much going on here. In the meantime, here are the songs of the day that we’d scheduled to appear, a new one every day through October 15, 2009 as the countdown to #1 on the Top 666 Songs of Alltime list continues. If this isn’t enough to satisfy your curiosity, look around a little, browse the index above and we’ll be back before you know it.
304. Joy Division – Walked in Line
“All dressed in uniforms so fine/They drank and killed to pass the time/Wearing the shame of all their crimes/With measured steps they walked in line.” Nazis as metaphor for conformity as a whole, stepping to a ridiculously simple, potent descending punk riff. An early, 1977-era song released on the posthumous 1981 Still lp, available in a ridiculous number of live and studio versions: peek around.
303. Dick Dale – Misirlou
The lefty guitar genius and surf music pioneer is Lebanese-American and probably heard this iconic Greek melody as a kid in the 50s. Nice to see him healthy again and back on the road. New York Greek party rockers Magges also do a tremendously fun version.
302. The Dog Show – If I Laugh Anymore I’ll Break
Blistering and catchy, sort of a cross between the Dead Boys and 50s R&B. One of the more obscure tracks here, this is on a rare ep by the NYC mod punks from 2003 or so and well worth seeking out, whether on a live bootleg (they exist) or otherwise.
301. Elvis Costello – Riot Act
One of Steve Nieve’s finest, most poignant moments in the band with all those hauntingly restrained piano arpeggios. From Get Happy, 1980; mp3s are everywhere.
300. The Grateful Dead – Days Between
Every now and then, Jerry and co. would pull out the gravitas and this is a prime, extremely poignant example from right before the end, an elegiac epic that in its dark, determined way might just be their best song. Not that it really mattered, but the Dead never released it during their lifetime as either a studio or live recording. So you need to go to dead.net or archive.org, where this 12-minute gem resides in several places.
299. The Go-Betweens – You Can’t Say No Forever
Haunting, percussive janglerock cautionary tale about the dangers of succumbing to the lure of marriage. An apt companion piece to the Fun Boy Three’s Tunnel of Love…and a million blues and country songs. It doesn’t sound much like anything the artsy New Zealand pop band ever did before or after. From 16 Lovers’ Lane, 1989; mp3s are everywhere.
298. The Rolling Stones – Black Limousine
A poignant requiem for a good time, Ron Wood’s warmly fluid blues solo one of his finest moments in the band over a neat hesitation-step series of basic blues changes. From Tattoo You, 1981; mp3s are everywhere, and don’t be shy about downloading it because like all major label releases, this one will never make the band any more money. Not that they need it anyway. The link above is a spirited live version from the tour of the same year.
297. Telephone – Au Coeur de la Nuit
The title translates as “heart of the night,” which to songwriter Jean-Louis Aubert’s credit transcends cliche here. One of the most iconic songs in French rock, it’s a blistering requiem, title track from the Parisian rockers’ 1981 lp. Which you can download all over the place; the link above is a careening live version from German tv.
296. Zager & Evans – In the Year 2525
OK, some of you may find this cheesy and over-the-top. But we think the 1969 one-hit wonder is spooky in a psychedelic California Dreaming kind of way. Whatever you think, the video above is hilarious – and it screams out for someone with a little more depth to cover the song and bring out all its apocalyptic angst. By the way, the song was a last-minute addition to the band’s first album (if you find it, pick it up, it’s rare). Available for taping off your favorite oldies radio station as well as all over the web.
Arguably the iconic indie rock siren’s signature song, this is a bruised, towering anthem about being left behind. And the injustice and cruel irony of it. From her classic Solar Bipolar cd, 2000; the link in the title above is the considerably faster but still dangerous version from the Live at Sin-e album, 2005.
294. Amy Rigby – Rode Hard
Culture shock has seldom been more amusingly, or more poignantly portrayed: fearless big city girl goes south and she doesn’t understand the natives any better than they understand her. She might be jealous of their brightly lit homes and seemingly secure lives, but she’s not sure. And are there any eligible guys within a hundred mile radius? Is there one? From the Sugar Tree cd, 2000, which you could download, or you could get at her site, she’s an independent artist so none of your money will go to any sleazy record label exec.
293. Erika Simonian – Bitter & Brittle
Best song on the classic 2003 All the Plastic Animals cd by the NYC underground songwriter/chanteuse and Sprinkle Genies guitarist, grimly yet wittily contemplating a fullscale breakdown with one of her characteristically gemlike lyrics.
292. Elvis Costello – Love Went Mad
“Do you know how I feel? Do you have a heart, do you have a heart of iron and steel?” the King inquires with a savage amphetamine insistence. A fast, anthemic smash from Punch the Clock, 1983, driven by Steve Nieve’s incisively bright piano. Mp3s are everywhere.
291. Curtis Eller – After the Soil Fails
Apocalyptic opening track on the fiery NYC banjo rocker’s 2008 cd Wirewalkers & Assassins:
This time the dream is a Russian oil tanker
Fidel Castro and Cuban sugarcane
Richard Nixon’s having the same old nightmare
Jack Ruby’s black secret crawling up through the drain…
When the hurricanes finally take out New Orleans
And scarlet fever has finally left Philadelphia bare…
There’s a ghost that we remember hanging in the air
290. Ninth House – Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me
Catchy, swaying Nashville gothic existentialist cautionary tale: “I know all your secrets,” frontman Mark Sinnis intones ominously. From Swim in the Silence, 2000.
289. Elena Zazanis – Stingray
The highly regarded indie film actress is also a terrific singer and songwriter, with a powerful alto wail and a haunting chromatic edge that reflect her Greek heritage. For a few years during the early part of the decade, she led a first-rate, dark New York powerpop band and this is their finest moment, a towering anthem vividly depicting a surreal nightmare scenario that doesn’t end well. Never recorded, although live bootlegs exist.
288. REM – Find the River
Arguably their best song, about as far from their indie roots as they ever got, lush and anthemic with a string section. It’s about getting old, and failure, and death. “All of this is coming your way.” From Automatic for the People, 1992. Click on the video in the link above.
For about a year the British rock press were all gaga over this lyrically brilliant, Costelloesque band who were one of the first to bring Afropop flourishes into rock. This is probably their most straight-up rock song, a bruising anthem about Albert Goldman’s hatchet-job John Lennon bio. From the Modern Times lp, 1985. The Pip Hoyle style organ solo out is luscious. Frontman Steve Skaith now fronts his own band, continuing to play and record intriguingly polystylistic, lyrical songs. The link in the title above is the stream at imeem.
286. Flash & the Pan – Restless
A few years after their legendary 60s garage-pop band the Easybeats had run its course, Australians Harry Vanda and George Young led this pioneering, truly extraordinary dark new wave studio project best known for their big 1979 hit Hey St. Peter. This apocalyptic number sets a haunting Middle Eastern melody to a fast, hypnotic dance beat, the lyrics as offhandedly disconcertingly as ever. From the classic Lights in the Night lp, 1980, more easily downloaded than you would think – the link above is a torrent.
285. The Room – Naïve
Best song on probably the best ep ever made, the Liverpool new wave legends’ 1985 release Jackpot Jack. This updates noir 60s pop with a jazzy tinge and haunting Hammond organ, Dave Jackson’s ominously breathy voice and characteristically biting lyrics. It’s also a great drinking song – who knew beer goggles could be so lyrical. Jackson and bassist Becky Stringer would carry on in the equally captivating Benny Profane and currently the Nashville gothic act the Dead Cowboys.
Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, James Ross and Joe Benzola, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and Elisa Flynn at the Delancey, NYC 6/29/09
Small Beast has taken to Mondays like a vulture on a carcass. The beef carcasses, i.e. hamburgers and hotdogs at the upstairs barbecue now carry a $5 pricetag, although it’s a fill-your-plate type deal (and the totally El Lay crowd up there looks like they can afford it). Botanica pianist Paul Wallfisch, opened the night in the cool, darkened ground-level space as he always does, solo on piano. Since Small Beast is his event, he’s gotten a ton of ink here. Suffice it to say that if dark, virtuosic, unaffectedly intense piano with a gypsy tinge is something you might like, run don’t walk to this Monday night extravaganza. Although last night it wasn’t, it’s usually over before Rev. Vince Anderson gets going across the river, so if you’re really adventurous you can hit both shows. This time out Wallfisch ran through a rather touching Paul Bowles song about a fugitive, in French; a lickety-split version of a noir cabaret tune by his longtime collaborator, chanteuse/personality Little Annie; a Crystal Gayle cover done very noir, and Shira and Sofia, a Botanica tune about the original Joy Division, a couple of WWII era whores. Make love, not war is what the two are encouraging in their own completely over-the-top way, and a few in the audience did a doubletake when Wallfisch got to the chorus.
Multi-instrumentalist James Ross and percussionist Joe Benzola were next, playing hypnotic instrumentals that sounded something akin to the Dead jamming Space with Electric Junkyard Gamelan, with Benzola using a multitude of instruments including wooden flute, recorder, kazoo, and a small series of gongs in addition to his drum kit and then layering one loop on top of another for a Silk Road feel. They took awhile to get going, Ross playing a zhongruan, a Chinese lute with a biting tone like a higher-pitched oud. This was an improvisation, and when they hit their stride the crowd was very into it – avante garde though it was, there was a repetitive catchiness to it too. Ross eventually switched to electric guitar, winding up their brief set with a trancelike, drony number where he built a small wall of feedback as if to hold off the relentless procession of beats.
Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble then grabbed the crowd by the back of the neck and spun them in the opposite direction with a ferocity that was even more striking in contrast to the previous act’s quiet psychedelica. To find a worthy comparison to Beren, the former Die Hausfrauen frontwoman, you have to go into the icon section: Iggy Pop, Aretha, Umm Kalthum or Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello are a few who can match the raven-haired contralto siren’s unleashed, menacing intensity. Backed by two lead guitarists, a trombonist who doubled on keys and a pummeling rhythm section, Beren opened the set with anguished vocalese, part scream and part very reluctant acquiescence. There was no turning back after that. The band name is apt in that their grand guignol attack can be bluesily hypnotic, tinged with classical motifs (Beren played macabre piano on a couple of numbers) and if you take it to its extreme (this is very extreme music), there’s nobody more goth than this crew. But these goths don’t put on batwings and hug the wall, they come to pillage and avenge. A couple of their heavier, stomping numbers bore a little resemblance to Blue Oyster Cult, but Beren’s writing is more complex and cerebral, expertly switching between tempos, building inexorably to a roar of horror. Their last song grew ominously with a whoosh of cymbals and some beautifully boomy chord work on the intro by bassist Greg Garing into a careening, crashing gallop that ended with a noise jam, Garing throwing off a nasty blast of feedback.
That Elisa Flynn wasn’t anticlimactic playing in the wake of Hurricane Vera speaks for itself. In her own moody, pensive and equally dark way, she proved a match for Beren, in subtlety if not sheer volume. Flynn’s new cd Songs About Birds and Ghosts is one of the year’s best, and that comprised most of what she sang, playing solo on guitar, expertly working the corners of a compelling, wounded delivery that she’d occasionally turn up to a fullscale wail when she needed to drive a point home. Her guitar playing proved as smartly matched to the songs’ emotion as her vocals, alternating between hammering chords and stark fingerpicking, sometimes building an eerie undercurrent of overtones using her open strings. Her songs have considerable bitterness but also a wry wit, as well as a frequently majestic, anthemic feel that comes to the forefront when she uses 6/8 time (which is a lot). I’m Afraid of the Way I Go Off Sometimes, she said, took its title from an email she’d received from a friend a week before he went into rehab. She warned that a cover of The Pyramid Song by Radiohead might be awkward, but it was anything but, in fact even more haunting than the original with something of a Syd Barrett feel. A brand-new one called Shiver was potently angry, building to a tastily macabre chorus. She followed that with an understated version of the opening cut on the new album, Timber, a towering anthem (with a cool Blair Witch video up on youtube). She closed with No Diamond, something of a lullaby “to send you off to sleep,” she said, another pensive number in 6/8. By now, it was approaching one in the morning; had she kept playing, no doubt the crowd would have kept listening.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Tuesday’s song is #519:
The Grateful Dead – China Doll
Dark, serious and beautiful, it’s a meditation on violence:
Tell me what you done it for
No I won’t tell you a thing
The 1974 recorded version on Mars Hotel is actually not bad, but as with pretty much everything the Dead ever did, nothing beats a good live take. Portland, Maine, May 1985 maybe? Tons of stuff up at archive.org.
Duke Robillard has made a reputation as one of the few blues guitarists who can indulge in a lot of pyrotechnics without overplaying. Tonight, the former Roomful of Blues lead player turned in an almost shockingly terse set: has he lost a step, or was he just in a minimalist mood? Those who came out expecting to hear mile-a-minute solos and wild, frenetic wailing doubtlessly came away disappointed, but for those who think long guitar solos are overkill, this was a show to see. The crowd was weird: in addition to the usual contingent of old stoner guys in Pink Floyd t-shirts, there were tons of rugrats, and a young woman who looked like the actress in Carnival of Souls clinging tightly to a pillow-sized stuffed animal that she wouldn’t let go of, even when her boyfriend showed up. There was also a mobster and the muscular, tattoed guy who appeared to be his enforcer, arguing over a favor the enforcer wanted. Whenever the conversation got really heated, they went closer to the stage to keep their discussion private. No dummies, those guys.
Robillard had an excellent band behind him, a saxist who doubled on harp, keyboardist and rhythm section. Robillard’s always been more of a swing jazz guy than a straight-up blues player, but it was mostly all the latter tonight. Robillard’s remarkably chordal aproach has always distinguished him from similar flashy players, and unsurprisingly, it was that material that stuck out from the rest of the songs in the set, particularly a straight-up, Stonesy rock song possibly titled She’s a Live Wire. Early in the set, Robillard tried taking flight a couple of times but couldn’t get off the runway, so he held back the rest of the way. He started playing his usual big, beautiful Gibson hollowbody, then switched to Telecaster and immediately found his groove. Then, surprisingly, he put it down and sang a cheesy old 50s hit, which didn’t exactly work out because nobody comes out to hear Robillard sing: he’s one of those guys who sounds like he has a frog in his throat. He then picked up the Tele again for a couple of cuts from his new album Swing Session, a jump blues and a slow ballad, then picked up another Fender that he said somebody had handed him and asked him to play, and complied. And played his most interesting solos of the night. With the same charmed guitar, he then tackled a T-Bone Walker number (now there’s a jazzcat playing blues!) and began it with some classic T-Bone style 4-on-3 playing, before closing with a long, almost Grateful Dead-style one-chord jam to close the set.
To answer a question recently posed, why would anyone want to see a blues show? Well, you can dance to it – the kids definitely were. It’s fun, and if the band is good and doesn’t overdo it the soloing and interplay between musicians is very cool (translation: it’s great stoner music). And the blues cats keep dropping like flies: someday you or your children may not get to hear any of this anywhere but on a recording.
This is Richard Thompson’s best, angriest, most lyrically rich and stylistically diverse studio album in ages, in fact since Industry, his 1997 collaboration with bassist Danny Thompson. Some of you may wonder why we’re reviewing someone so well-known here, and there’s a reason: he’s actually not that well known. He hasn’t had a label deal in years. He does, however have a rabid cult following, some of who go on the road with him like the Grateful Dead. Those fans insist that Thompson is both the best rock guitarist AND the best rock songwriter ever. They might be right.
He was already a dazzling player at 19 when he joined legendary psychedelic/Britfolk rockers Fairport Convention in the late 60s. He left that band a few years later and then put out several critically acclaimed semi-acoustic albums with his wife Linda Thompson. That collaboration culminated with their legendary 1982 record Shoot Out the Lights, a brutal blow-by-blow chronicle of the dissolution of their marriage that ends with what would become his signature song, The Wall of Death. It’s safe to say that it’s one of the greatest albums ever made. Since then, he’s released innumerable solo albums, both live and studio recordings, and virtually all of them are terrific. This ranks with the best of them.
The album’s centerpiece is a towering, seven-minute epic about violence. Its setting is Ireland, but its cast of dubious characters and their inevitable charge towards tragedy could could just as easily be in Iraq. Toward the end, we get a typically febrile Stratocaster solo from Thompson. He generally plays with a round, open tone without any distortion or effects, similar to Robert Cray. Here, he fires away a fusillade and then the instruments fall away one by one, with an understated, somber grace that perfectly matches the lyrics. Thompson is a master of matching melody to words, and this is a prime example.
There’s also a fiery anti-Iraq war number called Dad’s Gonna Kill Me, told from the point of view of a British soldier with his patrol, “sitting targets in the Wild West Show.” Dad is someone in command: he’s never named. It’s a tense, terrified, loping minor-key number that builds to an eerie, pointillistic guitar solo.
A lot of this album is electrified English jigs and reels, spiced with ominous guitar chromatics: Thompson loves those Middle Eastern tonalities. The sarcastic Mr. Stupid is directed at a greedy ex (ex-wife Linda, perhaps?) living off his royalties and tour earnings: “Clear the streets and book your seats, Mr. Stupid’s back in town.” She may despise him, but he’s quick to remind her that he’s still the one who writes the checks. The theme recurs in the album’s concluding number, Sunset Song, Thompson railing about being “up there on the cross where some say I belong.” He hasn’t been this angry at anyone – other than the Bush regime – in a long time.
Otherwise, there’s the excellent, sarcastic, defiantly fast I’ll Never Give It Up; Bad Monkey, another broadside aimed at an ex; Francesca, a rueful minor-key lament set to a surprisingly effective reggae beat, and the scorching, anti-Tony Blair song Sneaky Boy. And six other good ones, beautifully arranged with antique instrumentation: strings, krummhorn, mandolin, even uillean pipes on the tail end of the aptly metaphorical Too Late to Come Fishing. If you’re in the Thompson cult, you undoubtedly have this by now along with everything else; if he’s new to you, this is a fine way to become acquainted with a criminally underrated, astonishingly powerful rocker.