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.

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Progtoberfest: Day 2 Report

by Rick Krueger

The sun shone warmly again on the south side of Chicago as Progtoberfest III kicked off its second day.  Taking in the view as I exited the ‘L’, it was amusing and welcoming to see a familiar screaming face painted on the exterior of Reggie’s:

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Hoping to get Alphonso Johnson’s and Chester Thompson’s autographs in the VIP Lounge the night before, I’d struck up a delightful conversation with members of the North Carolina Genesis tribute band ABACAB.  In 2016, festival organizer Kevin Pollack had given them “homework” for this year: to play all of Genesis’ live album Seconds Out on the 40th anniversary of its release.  You could tell the band was nervous (they focus on 1980s Genesis to get bookings, so they had to learn half the album in the past year) but also absolutely thrilled to bring it to the Rock Club stage.  And on Saturday afternoon, they nailed it, to the joy of an enthusiastic, supportive crowd and rave reviews from other acts.  They’re already planning to return to Reggie’s in April as a headliner, and for Progtoberfest IV next October.  Check out why below:

Continue reading “Progtoberfest: Day 2 Report”

After the Silver Cord is Loosed: Armageddon

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Nearing the end: Keith Relf (left) and Jimmy Page, 1968

In July 1968 an exhausted Keith Relf handed the keys to the Yardbirds to Jimmy Page, the last of the triumvirate of ground-breaking guitarists to grace the seminal rock band. Relf and drummer Jim McCarty had tired of the road and, in some measure, rock itself, and wanted to do something in a folk vein. For them the frenetic rock scene had run its course.

In October of that year Page took the New Yardbirds (himself plus John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and John Bonham) to Olympic studios in London. Over 36 hours they hammered out Led Zeppelin, the biggest shockwave in rock history, the culmination of Chuck Berry’s rock n’ roll thunder, recaptured by Jeff Beck’s dangerous and deviant guitar a couple of years earlier, the climax of every frenzied dance ending in sweat-drenched pony-tails and bobby socks blackened by the gym floor.

Page proudly wore his old band on his paisley sleeve: “Communication Breakdown” brandished the proto-punk of Roger the Engineer; “Dazed and Confused” bore the same structure of the Yardbird’s cover of Jake Holmes’ original (credit where it’s due), including a mirror of Page’s guitar break from the BBC version of “Think About It”; “Black Mountain Side” was the Near Eastern-inspired complement to “White Summer”; and the slow burning blues tracks (“You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”) harken to the Yardies’ roots.

The final Yardbirds salute, the over-powering “How Many More Times,” opens with a cocksure shuffle after the manner of Clapton-era “Smokestack Lightnin’,” then rolls through a Beck-style bolero into not one but two Samwell-Smith-inspired rave ups that bookend a surreal break: a bow drawn over Page’s heavily distorted ‘dragon’ Telecaster — the schoolgirl catching her breath and picking herself up from the dancefloor.

Oh, Rosie…

Seeing Jefferson Airplane in 1967 and hearing Jack Casady’s Homeric bass solo, Page thought to himself, “This is the end of the world.” No. Led Zeppelin was the end of everything. All rock music since January 1969 is post-Zeppelin. Even Led Zeppelin had to become post-Zeppelin to maintain its dignity. The virus exploded; the DNA of countless, nameless concert halls, honky tonks, and juke joints spread through the atmosphere, reconfiguring itself in other forms: folk rock, metal, punk, fusion, techno, roots rock, grunge, etc.

Not the least of these was progressive rock, which is where Keith Relf turned up in 1974 when he formed Armageddon. In addition to Steamhammer’s speed riffer Martin Pugh and bassist Louis Cennamo, Florida native Bobby Caldwell — veteran of stints with Johnny Winter, Rick Derringer, and the Allman Brothers (“Mountain Jam”) — took a seat at the drum kit.

armageddonArmageddon (1975) is an aptly titled foray into the post-Zeppelin musicscape. But the album isn’t a detour unto itself. It looks at the past and present musically, and to the future lyrically. Pugh’s riffs are contemporaneous with Houses of the Holy and Physical Grafitti. Prefiguring later developments in prog rock, the music pulls back from the inclusion of multiple themes and motifs, settling into a groove, often one with funk and fusion elements, and extending the passage with subtle alterations. This is particularly evident on the blistering opener, “Buzzard,” as well as “Last Stand Before.”

Relf’s voice isn’t as deep and prominent as on the old Yardbird’s tracks. A lifelong asthma sufferer (it’s painful to watch Jeff Beck mimic Relf puffing on an inhaler), Relf was basically down to one lung by this stage of his ill-fated life and career. But this didn’t thwart his signature harmonica work, and when the instrument makes its appearance toward the end of tracks it comes with the harrowing apocalyptic authority of seven trumpets blowing.

Rock and roll, moving your soul

Took a few as well

On the line, out of time

Shooting stars that all fell

Oh Lord, do something, gotta slow it down

It’s coming on too fast, can’t take it

Feel like I’m gonna drown

Gonna stand and face it, but I need you near

Through the darkest hours, I’m calling

Sometimes I think you don’t hear me calling

Hear me calling

 

Awareness of the consummation and transformation of all things pervades the album. From the shimmering “Silver Tightrope,”

I thought I saw the candle-bearers

On their way to the beyond

Beckon to me from the future

To come and join the throng

I stepped upon the silver tightrope

Balancing beliefs

And wings unfurling with a new hope

I left behind my griefs

 

Even the darker “Buzzard” includes a promise,

But the meek will stand

Understanding nature

Seeing far beyond the plan

Take their place in time

Take their place in timeless structure

The end of this present life came quickly and unexpectedly for Keith Relf in May 1975, as he was the victim of an accidental electrocution while working with ungrounded sound equipment in his basement. When the Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame his wife and son accepted the honor on his behalf.

This post-everything world doesn’t last forever. In the meantime Armageddon occupies the already/not yet space with tight arrangements, subtle time changes, and expert chops from all its participants. And Relf proves the humblest instrument of ages past works in this context, creating a confident work one can take on a long drive — keeping an eye on the speedometer — in the direction of Proghalla.

soundstreamsunday: “Jogue Au Plombeau” by Leyla McCalla

leylamccalla3 - EditedFree and blue and beautiful, those moorings Leyla McCalla holds to in her music sway and pitch like the gulf waters from Hispaniola to Lousiana, rolling through her cello and voice and coursing through her songs, lifeblood to an American music heart.  In the weaving lines of the music she plays — a snaking, sliding creole so suited to, and perhaps partly a consequence of, the playing of fretless instruments — is the sound of an America taking shape as its many diasporas meet and mix and move, intersecting lines on a map that triangulate on New Orleans.  Like the best Americana musicians, McCalla achieves something at once utterly contemporary but steeped in an authenticity of sound that says so much about the heart that makes the music.  There’s no affected vocal, no hokum on the one hand or academic archness on the other.  And there could have been, so easily.  McCalla’s classically trained; she jumped from a New Jersey upbringing to a New Orleans residency; she’s an American born to Haitian rights activists in the thick of a struggle for democracy; she was an important member of the last incarnation of the much-loved Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Her road was ripe for opportunity to leave the music behind in bringing a message that might not have resonated as strongly as it does.  But instead she chose on her first solo record, Vari-Colored Songs (2014), to artfully adapt poetry by Langston Hughes and punctuate it with Haitian folk songs.  Her second record, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, is also cloaked in a music-first approach that makes the underlying messages — because they are indeed there, as they were in her curation of Hughes’s work — so much more compelling.

Like all achieving musicians, Leyla McCalla makes great records and is better in concert, her performances enlivened by the physicality of her musicianship and the communication among her band.  In this 2016 performance of “Jogue Au Plombeau,” the band is killing it, in a droning country blues jug-on-pommel trance that I could listen to for hours should they ever decide that that could make sense.  Accompanied by violist Free Feral and McCalla’s husband Daniel Tremblay on triangle (who also happens to be one of the more light-touch guitar players I’ve ever seen play live), Leyla McCalla convinces me that all the blues I’ve ever listened to begins here.

Leyla McCalla on bandcamp

Leyla McCalla on Amazon

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 above.

soundstreamsunday: “High Water (for Charley Patton)” by Bob Dylan

bob-dylan-plays-first-show-of-2016-in-japan-639x400Bob Dylan is the rare artist who, at 75, retains the power, energy, and restlessness that distinguished his early work.  As both a recording and performing artist, his electricity is unabated, and he continues to make vibrant contributions to the post-folk culture he virtually created.  That he has achieved this is astounding; for those of us who have followed his career and know something of its roots and evolution, it is not surprising.  He constantly recasts his song catalogue, the depth of which by 1965 (let alone 2016) was unrivaled in the rock/folk/singer-songwriter genre he invented, to match his current sound, and commands a fluidity of vision in his writing that sees beyond the trees and perhaps the forest as well.  Witness “High Water,” a tribute to Charley Patton (whose “High Water Everywhere” is a stone cold delta blues barking, howling, classic), from 2001’s Love and Theft. This is a blues about love and the water that rises, that has picked up some oldtime, some drone, shaking and breaking and name-checking muscle cars and evolutionary philosophers.  The thing is that it works because when Dylan sings “the cuckoo is a pretty bird” that’s a kind of referenced code that he’s hollering back to Patton.  He’s writing a blank check to freely associate (find and listen to a version of “The Cuckoo” and you’ll get what I mean), to make the rhyme work and throw meaning to the wind and to the listener.  Harder than it sounds because it’s about the sound, what music is, what makes its power inexplicable.  To make that warble on the 5th day of July, and trace your absurd and beautiful melody: it takes courage and a resolution that comes at a price only Dylan, and maybe Patton, knows.

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soundstreamsunday: “Traveling Riverside Blues” by Robert Johnson

Robert-Johnson-photoOn the heels of Benny Goodman’s concert at Carnegie Hall in January 1938, promoter/producer John Hammond (Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan…unbelievable) conceived of a concert that would further acknowledge the debt American music owed its roots, within the hallowed walls of the Hall. Race relations being what they were, so risky was Hammond’s venture that it took the American Communist Party to finance the show. “From Spirituals to Swing” showcased, along again with Goodman and Basie, blues and boogie artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Big Joe Turner, Helen Humes, James P. Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis. Absent, although invited by Hammond, was Robert Johnson, an obscure Delta blues guitarist and singer who had been getting some buzz via a minor regional hit called “Terraplane Blues.” Hammond came to learn that Johnson had been murdered that summer, and replaced Johnson with Broonzy, and for all of Broonzy’s subsequent influence on the blues revival of the 1960s, it would be Robert Johnson whose legend would grow (particularly after Hammond et al. produced the first compilation of Johnson’s work in 1960), a ubiquitous ghost, as the bluesman who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for a phenomenal talent. This perception of Johnson may have actually originated with him, and songs like “Hellhound on My Trail, “Me and the Devil Blues,” and “Crossroads Blues,” don’t dispel the self-made myth; yet Johnson’s talent speaks to years of real work, occupying a liminal space in an environment hostile to almost everything he was, and equating this with a meeting with Satan at the crossroads isn’t a stretch: how much would you sacrifice to be the best at the thing you love the most? Johnson gave it his life; what might have appeared from the outside, by those who knew him, as supreme self-involvement that transcended any sustained relationships, and led to his poisoning at the hands of a lover’s jealous husband, was the ultimate tribute to his own self-made gift. He had more to get done on this earth than most, and that had to be a kind of hell as well as a kind of ecstasy. You can hear both in every one of his 42 existing recordings. And the “centennial edition” issued in 2011 offers the set with noise reduction deftly applied, so that the surface pops and scratches from the original master discs are scrubbed without loss or distortion of content. You can hear Johnson shifting in his chair, and, in the length of echoes, the subtle changes in his position relative to the corner that he faced while recording — he is made human, and what he produces in that corner, alone with his guitar, is all the more remarkable. Johnson’s technical ability allowed him to play a rhythm and a lead simultaneously, but while much has been made of his guitar playing, and his odd and varied tunings, he used his voice to equal effect, in service to his songs, here a vibrato, there a growl, here a moan or high-pitched yawp. He employed a handful of templates for many of his songs, but brought to them a loose approach and lyrical dexterity. There is also a strong sense of performance in the tunes. Where Charley Patton was screaming and hollering his blues, and Blind Willie Johnson may have been truly possessed, Robert Johnson was the first post-Delta blues singer, a polished showman using affectation in an almost punk-ish way. It is maybe this that caught the attention of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton — who had the nerve, in one form or another, to take on Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Dust My Broom,” “Four Until Late,” “Crossroads Blues,” “Love in Vain” — and what made it even conceivable that such songs could be covered or transformed or influential. Because in a sense Johnson was covering them himself, replaying that ride to the crossroads. Choosing the trip, feeling the night. It is the essence of all rock and roll.

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