soundstreamsunday #94: “Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac

fleetwoodmacThere is a little irony that Fleetwood Mac hit superstardom ten years into its existence, having jettisoned numerous guitar heroes — including the group’s founder, the inimitable and brilliant Peter Green — and did so as a West Coast soft rock band rather than the grimy British hard blues act that inspired contemporaries and was absolutely formative for Jimmy Page in his vision of Led Zeppelin.  By 1975, beleaguered and getting old in the rock and roll tooth, and years since it had anything approaching a hit, the band made a last ditch, daring sea change that saw them bring on the largely unknown singer-songwriting couple Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, who radically reshaped Fleetwood Mac’s sound.  1975’s Fleetwood Mac was their breakthrough, while 1977’s Rumours proved the formula worked, as Nicks and Buckingham brought a finesse of songcraft sorely missing since Peter Green left the band.  More than this, though, the two Americans integrated, rather than overlayed, their sound on Fleetwood Mac.  Onstage, Nicks became Green’s “Black Magic Woman” incarnate, a gypsy witch with a unique vocal power (and a sexual presence that didn’t hurt the band’s progress), while Buckingham, a gifted, complete guitarist, could play lines summoning the group’s bluesy manalishi ghosts while feeding the ravenous pop machine he was building.

The last song on Rumours, Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman” is an ode to coke, interwoven with the legendary California cartoon of disintegrating relationships and romantic triangles making up Fleetwood Mac’s lore.  It completes side two of the LP as assuredly as “The Chain” begins it, the two songs dancing at the edges of Peter Green’s blues terrors, advancing into soft rock classic dark jazz torches like “Lush Life” while setting the stage for future L.A. creatures like “Babylon Sisters.”  Like the LP it finishes, the song is a dark star, a downer completing one of the unlikeliest of pop albums.  “Rock on, gold dust woman.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #93: “The North Star Grassman and the Ravens” by Sandy Denny

Sandy-DennyIn September 1971, Sandy Denny — on the heels of an incendiary contribution to “Battle of Evermore” from Led Zeppelin‘s upcoming fourth album — released her first solo record, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.  It carried with it the strength and grace of her previous efforts, and featured many of the musicians with whom she had built her reputation, namely Richard Thompson from Fairport Convention and the entirety of Fotheringay.  It was a confident beginning to a too-brief solo career, and in its quiet power illustrates why Denny’s influence on the British folk and rock scenes was so profound.  Like other inhabitants of her world — thinking Thompson, Nick Drake, Lal Waterson — she was writing ahead of the curve, making deeper and contemporary connections to the wellspring of traditional folk while avoiding the easier middle earth sword epics so much of the rock world was obsessed with at the time (“Battle of Evermore” being a successful example of this).

A sailor’s life, a lament, an existential sea chanty, “The North Star Grassman and the Ravens” has everything describing Denny’s talent:  lyrical finesse, melodic beauty, the alchemical relationship of words to tune.  And of course, that voice, the kind of voice that could sing the traditional “Tam Lin” with menace and authority on Fairport’s Liege and Lief (1969), and turn on a dime to deliver something as hauntingly beautiful as “The Sea,” a song of her own devise, from Fotheringay (1970).

There are three striking versions of “North Star.”  The lovely studio original is shaded with classic early 70s British folk rock production (courtesy of John Wood), unfussy and earthy with a dynamic pop of bass and drums, Thompson’s restrained acoustic guitar not show-stopping but providing rhythmic chug while Ian Whiteman’s flute organ is suggestive of the hornpipe.  A solo live appearance on the BBC has Denny at the piano, owning the song without a band, a confident performer on her way to becoming a national treasure.  Denny recorded her last “North Star” in November 1977, just months before her death.  Here, with a full electric band, the song has morphed from somber reflection to country rock grandeur.  The recording was marred by technical difficulties in the guitar tracks and only released twenty years on, after Jerry Donahue (Fotheringay, Fairport) overdubbed new parts.  Even with this in mind, Donahue’s playing and his history with Denny wins the day, making Gold Dust: Live at the Royalty one of the better samplers of her work.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #92: “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin

kashmirConsider Blueshammer.  Fictional, yes, short-lived, definitely (seconds at most).  Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff made no bones in their film Ghost World (from Clowes’ graphic novel) about white blues musicians — that is, Blueshammer — who drowned out the source of their inspiration through sheer volume, and the thoughtlessness of the fans who followed them.  It’s easy pickings, sure, but there’s also some truth there, and as practitioners of the art of the blues hammer, it wasn’t the first time Led Zeppelin and their peers were skewered in pop culture (see Spinal Tap), nor would it prevent other very capable white bro’ blues artists from on the one hand shredding and posturing, and on the other (and doubly suspect I think) donning the Ray-Bans and porkpie hats and a-how-how-howing through thousands of dollars of instruments, cables, amps, etc. to legions of adoring fans.  Shall we name names? No.  You and they and I know who they and I and you are.

Even at their emergence, many rock royalty decried the bludgeoning the mighty Zeppelin gave the blues, and certainly their excesses were as clear as their achievements.  But, they achieved a lot:  between their approach to traditional music of all stripes (they bludgeoned everything equally, often with finesse), their revolutionary production techniques, Jimmy Page’s ability to find the sweet spot between technique and feeling (and Robert Plant’s cock-of-the-walk wail, and John Bonham’s pounding, and John Paul Jones’s rock steady everything else), and their marketing prowess, it’s hard to sell Led Zeppelin short.  As they would have it, it might be blues hammer, but it was blues hammer of the gods, straight outta Valhalla.  And they were pretty much right, the most powerfully potent rock band of the 1970s, so successful that the only thing they risked was radio fatigue from overplay — a risk that proved all too real for a lot us (I’d never surrender my Zep LPs, but do I listen to them….?).  When Bonham drank himself to death it probably wasn’t the worst thing to happen to the band in terms of its own legacy: across eight seamlessly consistent studio albums they managed not to make one dud, as they threw most everything against the wall.  It all stuck.  Their apex was 1975’s Physical Graffiti, a double album opus that sprawled and summed, peaking with the epic “Kashmir.”  It was a landmark of progressive hard rock, an ego-driven nod to world music in all its variegated unfolding, and even as Zep dressed their song in the North African and eastern themes that captured their imaginations as strongly as the Mississippi Delta or the Welsh hills had, there was never any doubt that this music was completely theirs, and that it was nobly and spiritedly done.

Here is “Kashmir” from Celebration Day, the concert Zeppelin gave in 2007 in honor of Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records founder.  It may be their greatest live moment, even minus their legendary drummer, as the band (with Bonham’s son Jason ably thundering), healthy and aged and all in, describe why they were worth listening to in the first place, and why, really, they were never just a hammer of the blues, but indeed a hammer of the gods.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #91: “Clap/Starship Trooper” by Yes

howeFor every Charley Patton putting songs to record in the South in the early decades of the last century, there were dozens who influenced the course of music without ever seeing a recording studio or microphone.  One such country blues guitarist was Arnold Schultz, whose dynamic, syncopated thumb/index picking made an impact on musicians in western Kentucky, particularly Kennedy Jones, Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and Merle Travis.  This Muhlenberg County sound, along with Maybelle Carter’s “scratch,” recast country music guitar playing, giving it a slick swing, a jazz potential, and directly shaped the music of Chet Atkins.  As country music hit its sophisticated stride in the 1950s and 60s, Atkins was behind much of its transformation, his instrumental prowess, coupled with his skills as a producer, advancing an ethic of musicianship in country music that continues to hold sway.  To this day much of the world’s guitar talent resides in Nashville.

And in England…

When Steve Howe joined Yes in 1970, he was able to up their game by bringing to it a music — channeling Travis and Atkins — that went deep to the roots of blues and country.  He connected the dots with some hints of irony, for how could such classical posturing of the kind Yes exhibited (successfully) live tooth-by-jowl with such self-styled provincialism? That it works so well is one of the primary reasons Yes was Yes, and why Steve Howe is such a special guitarist.  Like John Fahey, Howe was essentially a classical guitarist with a passion for the complex picking styles emerging from the American South decades prior.  And ultimately this is what made progressive rock’s first wave what it was and gave it a freedom that could roam stylistically, because it could do justice to the styles that in their own rights were already a musical gumbo.  Prog rock was and is about musicianship and musical literacy but, more importantly, it’s about creative synthesis, world music back to the source, and putting together the puzzle pieces in ways that make sense and that rock.  And nothing, NOTHING, rocks like the kind of right hand action Merle Travis and Chet Atkins could bring to country swing.

Howe’s impact on Yes is is up front on 1971’s The Yes Album (his first with the group).  The band was impressed enough with their new guitarist that they tucked a live instrumental, Howe’s “Clap,” in the middle of the first side of the album, setting up the “Disillusion” sequence in the next track, the prog epic “Starship Trooper.”  In retrospect this was a radical move, and pushed Cream’s blues homages (“Spoonful,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” etc.), and Zeppelin’s folk tributes (thinking their reading of “Black Mountainside” and “Gallows Pole”) into new terrain.  Put them in the cosmos, a space pastoral, conjuring the kind of world suggesting the LP covers Roger Dean would soon be painting for the group.  Set the controls for the heart of the Delta.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #90: “A Spoonful Blues” by Charley Patton

patton_crumb2While John Fahey was working on the set of songs that included “Sunny Side of the Ocean,” for The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965), he was completing his master’s thesis in folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, the first biography and analysis of the work of blues guitarist/singer Charley Patton.  It was published in paperback form in 1970 and is now considered a classic of blues literature.  (Like most early Fahey endeavors, original printings go for exorbitant sums.  However, indulge yourself here for free.)  Fahey’s obsession with Patton is clear but also realistic, and contains in it the reach and grasp of a true scholar.  One gets the impression he probably could have rattled this off in his sleep, despite the occasional dry stiffness no doubt desired by his thesis committee.  Fahey’s point: blues and folk scholarship was missing out big on players like Patton, who for years had been written off as being past the cut-off point of interest of circa 1928, i.e., more influenced by records than oral tradition and thus not worth bothering over.  The racism banked deep in this position aside, Fahey argues successfully that the atmosphere of non-direction in the recording studio for blues artists of Patton’s era (1929-1934) in particular — a result of A&R men having no idea what black communities wanted in the “race records” they were promoting to those same communities — gave players like Patton freedom to perform more naturally than they might otherwise, and produced work that provided a window into African American existence in the Mississippi Delta in the first half of the 20th century.

Fahey’s efforts notwithstanding, Patton remains a dazzling mystery, dead and mostly forgotten for over thirty years before Fahey’s scholarship and the debts acknowledged by artists like Bob Dylan.  Far wilder in lifestyle and presentation than that other King of the Delta Blues, Robert Johnson (himself no stranger to the on-the-edge, rough life of an itinerant Delta musician) Patton’s repertoire was also more diverse, and his showmanship as much a part of his legend as his musicianship to the people who knew him and had seen him perform (to the extent that Son House expressed surprise to Fahey on hearing a Patton record Fahey played back for him, not recalling his friend’s potent guitar prowess but instead Patton’s “clowning”).  While Patton’s legacy never attained the rock’n’roll sanctification accorded Johnson’s work — there’s no equivalent for Patton to Cream’s cover of Johnson’s “Crossroads” or the Stones’ “Stop Breaking Down” — his work constitutes in its rawness an essential rock document, the direct antecedent to the entire career of Howlin’ Wolf (who Patton mentored), and thus by association Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits.  So if Robert Johnson is closely associated with classic blues rock as exemplified by Cream and the jam bands that followed, Patton can to some degree be claimed by artists who inhabit rock’s lunatic fringe.  This isn’t, of course, an all-or-nothing proposition, but just one possible, shifting observation.  Patton was a punk.

Continue reading “soundstreamsunday #90: “A Spoonful Blues” by Charley Patton”

soundstreamsunday #89: “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean” by John Fahey

faheyBeginning in 1959, John Fahey’s “Blind Joe Death” excursions for solo acoustic guitar were the first to radically reconsider traditional blues and old-time music, extending by personalizing what Harry Smith did with the Anthology of American Folk Music (1952): rather than mythologizing what at that time was a largely unknown recorded legacy, as Smith did, Fahey made it breathe life, by quoting in his riffs on the traditional all manner of contemporary music.  There is not a folk or jazz or avant-garde or prog rock guitarist who doesn’t owe Fahey a debt for this, for not only breaking boundaries — with which he was hyper-literate — but making such things seem irrelevant in the music he made.

“On the Sunny Side of the Ocean” is from 1965’s Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death.  It is a masterpiece of droning open-tuned right-hand wonder, building steam and dimension until it opens up with an unexpected pull off that turns the entire ship eastward on its perfumed journey.  It is here, in this simple but everything phrase, that Fahey’s influence is apparent, as it would echo down the years through Popol Vuh and Opeth, just as Charley Patton and Mississippi John Hurt echoed through Fahey.

Transfiguration, certainly.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #88: “Oh wie nah ist der Weg hinab” by Popol Vuh

pv_letztetage.jpgIn the last few years, David Eugene Edwards has taken Wovenhand — soundstreamsunday #85 — in an increasingly heavy direction, towards drone metal underpinning an utterly unique and dead serious frontier circuit preacher mysticism.  The drone as tribal, the ancient tool of ascension to the Common One, and so Wovenhand’s thunderous droning riffs on 2012’s Laughing Stalk and 2014’s Refractory Obdurate relate to themes steeped in Native American and old time music, eastern desert whirlwinds and western desert stoner rock.  It is a vast music carrying a mad sensibility:

In its gothic-ness and existential riddles the music of Wovenhand is tied to bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, early Cult and, going further back, Popol Vuh.  The masters of acoustic and electrified devotional drone and chant music, Florian Fricke’s Popol Vuh were for decades known mostly for their Werner Herzog film soundtracks and often, mistakenly I think, identified as New Age.  The krautrock revival of the 1990s put them on a proper map and made their records — ranging from drifting synth meditations to acoustic chants — widely available, while their celebration by bands like Opeth (who often play Popol Vuh prior to coming on stage) have given them a certain hip cred.

By the mid-1970s Popol Vuh’s association with fellow Munich-based rock band Amon Duul II opened their music to harder electric exploration, and when drummer/guitarist Danny Fichelscher left ADII to join Popol Vuh following Connie Veit’s departure (Veit played on Popol Vuh’s stunning classic, 1972’s Hosianna Mantra), he brought with him the Teutonic heaviness that was ADII’s stock-in-trade.  What followed was a string of records where Fichelscher gave form, importantly, to Fricke’s east-meets-west devotional exercises.  Among these albums was 1976’s Letzte Tage Letzte Nachte, an electric monument joining dark guitar figures with Popol Vuh’s trademark mantras.  Renate Knaup, also from ADII, contributes vocals along with Dyong Yun, the band’s primary singer.  “Oh wie nah ist der Weg hinab,” though, is an instrumental, and is representative of the shadows and light found in the set.  Darkness builds and thunder cracks, and then the storm breaks, the world made new.  There is an intended spiritual drama unfolding here, as it does in Wovenhand’s music, and, wordless as it is, the message is clear.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.