George Thorogood has been amazing audiences with his frenetic slide work and low down blues since the late seventies. His run of hits and solid albums for EMI Records in the eighties cemented his position in the national consciousness, especially with the modern blues classic ‘Bad to the Bone’. Thorogood’s live shows are legendary and I can attest to this having seen the Destroyers live several times over the years. I have been aware of his modern releases for years, most notably 2003s “Ride Till I Die”, but was totally surprised to come across the 2011 Capitol Records release “2120 South Michigan Avenue”. The album is a tribute to the Chess Records catalog of blues hits, originally recorded at the Michigan Avenue address by legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Buddy Guy. While Thorogood has been recording superb covers of these blues greats for decades, it is a refreshing and well recorded take on some obscure material and chestnuts that sets this group of songs apart. There are originals and that brings me to the best song on the album: ‘Going Back’. Thorogood penned this song as an homage to the music that influenced his artistry over the years. More than that, it is just a great blues/rock song that delivers his best riff since ‘Bad to the Bone’. ‘Going Back’ literally jumps out of the stereo. The vocal delivery, guitar playing and arranging are some of his best work. I would advise picking up the vinyl 2 disc set (it contains bonus tracks), but don’t miss ‘Going Back’…it is one of the best rock n roll songs of the new millenium!
Category Archives: Blues
“You can keep that diamond ring.
Take it downtown and find out what it will bring.
You can ask me to give you almost anything….all except my heart.”
It is essential for an artist to evolve if they are to survive changing times and tastes in the music industry. Joe Cocker began life in the late sixties as a counter culture icon with his iconic performance at the Woodstock festival and subsequent “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour with Leon Russell. Establishing himself with classic songs like “You Are So Beautiful” and “With a Little Help From My Friends”, by the mid seventies Cocker had faded from public view but had established a reputation as the preeminent rock interpreter of some of the greatest writers in the modern era.
His comeback in the eighties was miraculous to say the least, with the ballad smash “Up Where We Belong” returning him to the top of the charts. He continues to ride that wave of success, especially on classics like 1989s “One Night of Sin” and 1987s “Unchain My Heart”. While old fans stay mired in the sounds of his early days, those willing to investigate these newer albums will find many hidden gems.
One of his best efforts in years was 2002s “Respect Yourself”, his 18th studio album. Produced by John Shanks (Chris Isaak, Stevie Nicks, etc.), the album never veers too far from his soul and blues roots. The original track ‘You Can’t Have My Heart’, written by Shanks and frequent Cocker cohort CJ Vanston, is a classic example of why Cocker still is vital in the genre he helped to define.
“This time, I’m gonna talk my way…”
Roy Buchanan is the father of instrumental rock guitar, an inspiration to both his musical peers and successors. His playing combined technical prowess and heartfelt emotion, using his Fender Telecaster to elicit unwieldy screams and whispering squeals. These sounds would be used to replicate the gospel music of his childhood, disguising traditional arrangements with new excursions into harmonics and lightning fast runs up and down the fretboard. This had much to do with his beginnings as a pedal steel guitar player, his incongruous musical background in gospel and R&B music, and a childhood taking him from the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas to northern California. Having the biggest rock acts of the 20th century come to admire his mastery did not translate into mainstream success as a solo act, as his sound could not be refined to meet the standards of mainstream rock radio. His success was much more culturally relevant and long lasting, time has shown, as guitarists from Jeff Beck to Steve Vai to Robbie Robertson have recognized him as a major influence on their careers and modern music in general.
What Buchanan lacked in record sales, he made up for in mystique. Over the course of his career, Roy Buchanan became as much a legend for his temperament and uncompromising attitude as for his undeniable talent. He first came to attention as the lead guitar player for Ronnie Hawkins, igniting his early singles and live shows with incendiary guitar solos punctuating Hawkins’ own growling vocals. The bass player in the Hawks was a teenage Robbie Robertson, inheriting the lead guitar position when Buchanan vacated and eventually relocated to Washington D.C. Robertson often discusses his years with Buchanan as a daily tutorial of how to be an effective instrumentalist in a live setting, garnering reactions from the crowd with dynamic lead lines and a quiet, burning intensity. Once in the nation’s capitol, Buchanan’s legend grew, famously turning down the open guitar chair in the Rolling Stones and appearing in a 1971 documentary “The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World”. He recorded several albums for Polydor and Atlantic Records throughout the seventies, with his signature instrumental, ‘The Messiah Will Come Again’, appearing on the 1972, self titled debut. The song became his trademark, something akin to Peter Green’s ‘Albatross’, in its ability to summarize his entire oeuvre of guitar expressions into a singular artistic statement. Beginning as a gospel sermon, it explodes into a frenzy of guitar pyrotechnics and unabashed heart and soul.
After a self imposed break in the early eighties, Buchanan had become disillusioned with the music business. He reorganized with a trio of albums for Chicago blues label Alligator Records, garnering strong sales and the best reviews of his career. One of Buchanan’s main road blocks was one experienced by many guitarists, which is the lack of a quality singer. Much like Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana, many of his albums featured different band lineups and while his instrumentals soared, the vocalists could not measure up to his musical backing. The Alligator albums, however, relied on some heavy hitters to vocalize (Delbert McClinton), as well as Buchanan’s own spoken word delivery that would be used to great effect on the classic ‘When A Guitar Plays the Blues’. In the midst of a career renaissance, Roy Buchanan was found dead in a Virginia prison cell in 1988 at just 48 years old. As in life, mystery also surrounds his death…it remains under investigation to this day. His inspiring recordings continue to surprise and delight musicians, only hinting at the powerful showmanship he displayed in his element, the concert stage.
“Walk through the fire, fly through the smoke…
See my enemy at the end of their rope.
Walk on pins and neeedles, see what they can do.
Walk on guilded splinters with the King of the Zulu.”
It is nearly impossible today to find an artist who is the genuine article. Someone is who not only talented, but was actually a part of the innovations in their genre. While British blues is at times staggering and filled with emotion, it is common knowledge that the blues from the Mississippi delta and, later, Chicago, was the genuine article. Our links to this original music are fading fast. Dr. John, known to some as Mac Rebennack, is an artist who represents the traditions and spirit of New Orleans. Whether he is quoting his background through Dixieland jazz or blues, New Orleans bleeds through the speakers whenever he performs. At 69, the Nite Tripper has been ensconced in his musical environment long enough to have defined the past, but also helped carry on traditions into our future.
‘I Walk on Guilded Splinters’ was the epic masterpiece from his 1968 debut on Atlantic-owned Atco Records, “Gris Gris”. Throughout the fifties and early sixties, Dr. John worked as a session musician, producer and A&R man until he began his prolific solo career. He was already established as a key ingredient in the New Orleans music scene when he began putting on elaborate stage shows showcasing his cultural heritage. The massive productions were highlighted by elaborate costumes with headdresses that recalled the Mardi Gras parade attire for those of Creole heritage. Underneath the stunning visuals was an undercurrent of the voodoo practices New Orleans was also known for. By pairing this showmanship with music representing both the musical and cultural values of the Crescent City, Dr. John had effectively created a new genre of music that helped put Creole music back on the map.
The song cycle on “Gris Gris” is best experienced in LP format, from start to finish with additional tracks like ‘Mama Roux’ adding much to the proceedings. You can hear, however, in ‘I Walk…’ how intense and involved Dr. John’s live shows were in the late sixties. The song boils his persona down to an essence, giving the listener a true feeling of what the backbone of New Orleans traditions really are. Mixing influences from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Professor Longhair, a history of New Orleans is contained within the seven minute epic. This reverence crystallized on the 1972 Atco release “Gumbo”. This album, his fifth solo release, became his calling card, mixing standards with self penned tracks to great effect. His own songs mix so well with the classic New Orleans based covers that you are hard pressed to tell a difference between the old and the new.
Dr. John has gone on to great success with many different types of music. His standard Jazz albums have become his best known work, with the collections “In A Sentimental Mood” and “Duke Elegant” becoming best sellers in the genre. He also revisits his Nite Tripper persona from time to time, as well as the traditional New Orleans stylings on albums “Goin Back to New Orleans” and “Anutha Zone”. While he continues to perform, his shows are now a mixture of the old and the new, the taboo and the mainstream. To see him perform is to experience a century’s worth of music most of us have no reference for. Listen to the albums to read the map he has left the rest of us to go and seek out this classic music of the American south.
“I’m not alone…sitting right there.
How come I get the feeling you’d vanish into the air?
I love you more than anybody else, babe.
Can’t you tell I’m an easy touch?
Baby, baby…I think I love you too much.”
Jeff Healey was a true musical visionary, changing the way the guitar can be played in the context of blues, rock and jazz. Discovered in his native Toronto, Healey developed a unique style all his own. Blind from an early age, his technique grew from having the guitar lying in his lap, as opposed to having it pulled close to the body. His left hand danced across the finger board of the guitar from above, with lightning fast lead lines showcasing his mastery of the instrument. The fact that his vocals were as strong as his guitar skills only added to his appeal. With sidemen Joe Rockman and Tom Stephen, he formed the Jeff Healey Band. The group debuted with the 1988 hit “See the Light”. It was produced in coordination with the film “Road House”, which also helped to expose Healey to a wide audience as he had a prominent role. The album and film debuted the single ‘Angel Eyes’, penned especially for the project by John Hiatt. That single rose to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving Healey instant recognition both by the public and his fellow musicians.
On his next two releases, “Hell to Pay” and “Feel This”, Healey continued the trend set by his debut. Superstar guitarists and songwriters lined up to work with the young virtuoso, including Tom Petty and George Harrison. “Hell to Pay” also featured a new Mark Knopfler composition, ‘I Think I Love You Too Much’. The song was played by Dire Straits in concert, but did not see official release. The 1990 recording of this version features a prominent vocal and guitar performance from Healey himself, with cameo guitar runs from Knopfler. The quality of the song only strengthens the fact that Healey was held in the highest regard by some of the top names in blues and rock.
Jeff Healey continued to tour and record throughout the nineties, ending his affiliation with Arista Records after the 1995 release “Cover to Cover”, a stellar release featuring cover versions of blues and rock rarities. Using his amazing range on the guitar as a springboard, Healey moved towards more traditional jazz performances in the following decade. He opened a club in Toronto, ala Buddy Guy, and released several independent albums based in his new sound. His tragic passing in 2008, from cancer, left a great hole in the world of music. Very rarely do artists come along who truly revolutionize their instrument. Jeff Healey accomplished this, adding a new chapter to the story of the blues.
“He used to say soul shine,
It’s better than sunshine.
It’s better than moonshine.
Damn sure better than rain.”
The Allman Brothers Band are one of the most innovative bands of the 20th century. With a string of genre defining albums for Capricorn Records in the seventies, they discovered musical pathways uncharted by other groups. Fusing Jazz, Blues, Rock N Roll and Country, they took a twin lead guitar approach with slide maestro Duane Allman and melodic tunesmith Dickey Betts. The two players together created a string of hook-laden masterpieces, almost lyrical in sound. The soulful vocals of brother Gregg Allman, in addition to his mastery of the Hammond B-3 organ, perfectly complimented the instrumentation. When other bands play the Allman Brothers songs today, they sound like the Allman Brothers. It is one of the highest compliments a musician can pay, as the Allmans do not just write songs, they create statements dependent on their musical arrangements. Each release was full of fan favorites and radio staples like ‘Whipping Post’, ‘Jessica’, ‘Ramblin Man’ and ‘Midnight Rider’ just to name a few. Rounding out the lineup was Berry Oakley on bass and Butch Trucks and Jaimoe on drums, respectively.
The devastating loss of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley in the early seventies took a heavy toll on the band, sideling them for the several years. They soldiered on with quality players, but the magic faded over time and they drifted apart both musically and personally. While their influence on today’s musical landscape is undeniable, the band was seen as unsalvageable by the late eighties. Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts were each embarking on successful solo ventures, releasing well received albums and touring with revamped groups. It was The Dickey Betts Band, however, who furnished the Allman Brothers Band with the replacements they needed to emerge as survivors in the nineties.
Warren Haynes, a North Carolina born guitar virtuoso, led the Betts band on the outstanding album “Pattern Disruptive” for Epic Records. Haynes had played with David Allen Coe previously, and Betts enlisted him when it came time to reform the Allman Brothers for a reunion tour to back their fantastic 1988 box set “Dreams”. Anyone filling the shoes of the late Duane Allman would need to walk a very fine line between mimicry and desecration and Haynes played the part perfectly. He was talented enough to fill the void with his natural talent and soulfulness, playing Dwayne’s parts but adding his own flair to the proceedings. The first studio album by this new lineup was the rejuvenated “Seven Turns” in 1990. All members sounded creatively motivated and the new members created a band that at once seemed fresh and reverential at the same time. Haynes emerged on this album not only as a talented guitar foil for Betts, but also as a new writer in the group adding songs to their massive catalog.
The song ‘Soulshine’ has become a standard for the Allman Brothers Band, recorded and released on their 1994 album “Where it All Begins”. The song has a definite guitar hook reminiscent of the best Duane Allman compositions, but also a plaintive delivery from consummate soul man Gregg who makes the song his own on the original release. Haynes wrote the song, a personal rumination on his childhood memories, and paired it to the classic Allman Brothers sound to great effect. He has since performed it solo, as well as with his side project, the immensely popular Gov’t Mule. Recorded in Jupiter, Florida, the album was the last to feature this second classic group lineup. Haynes and bassist Allen Woody left in the late nineties to focus on Gov’t Mule full time and founding member Betts was relieved of duty in 2000. In a strange twist of fate, Warren Haynes was brought in to replace Dickey Betts and has filled his seat since. Allen Woody also died in this time period, leaving another great void in the Allman Brothers world. Today, the band soldiers on with a variety of new members, touring each year to continued success. ‘Soulshine’ is not only a classic song but also a fabulous reminder of how amazing this lineup of the Allman Brothers Band truly was.
“Say you’ve been a-fishin’ all the time.
I’m a-goin’ fishin’ too.
I bet your life, your lovin’ wife
Can catch more fish than you.”
Musicians in the modern pop era are generally self taught explorers, chasing after sounds that they discovered at a very young age. These sounds may come from hundreds of miles away, or from a past long gone from the present generation. Some would say the early blues masters were well ahead of their time, influencing generations of musicians to follow well after their heyday. The epic six LP compilation “Anthology of American Folk Music” was sent like a message from the past to the young blues, folk and rock players to develop in the 1960’s. Released in 1952 on Folkways Records, the boxed set was a precursor to the modern compilation package. It was assembled by musicologist Harry Smith and is now considered one of the single most influential musical collections ever released. It was a treasure trove of long-unheard blues, gospel, folk and country songs that would become staples of the folk revival.
One of the standout tracks on the set is ‘Fishin’ Blues’ by Henry Thomas. The song is best known in a modern version by bluesman Taj Mahal, but the original has a certain patina unattainable in a modern recording context. The song features Thomas, playing guitar, singing and playing a pan flute…simultaneously. By injecting the song with an infectious chorus and riff, Thomas creates a song that could be from any time period. One of the most endearing and mystical aspects of the recording is that little is known about Thomas. This recording, while incredibly influential with the release of the “Anthology…”, was recorded during a flurry of recording activity for the bluesman. His only recordings were made for Vocalian Records between 1927 and 1929. After that, the Texan’s whereabouts are unknown. Any impressionable mind would surely be awed by both the sheer talent of the musician as well as his mysterious background.
The “Anthology of American Folk Music” was reissued in 1997 by the newly formed Smithsonian Follkways Records on six compact discs. The reissue is a beautiful replica of the original LP package and contains multiple essays and commentary on Smith’s original track listing. Harry Smith was a known bohemian who worked in music and film until his death in New York City in 1991. His legacy lives on through multiple projects, but none have influenced the world we live in more than his epic “Anthology”.
(This is the original Henry Thomas version from the “Anthology”)
(Here is a live version from blues revivalist Taj Mahal)