Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Bucket List: Doug Sahm - SDQ '98 (1998)

The large Texas ego allows the city of Austin to brag that they are the "Live Music Capital of the World." The good news is that their claim may have some merit because the city is home to over two hundred venues featuring live music. I'll be making my first trip to The Lone Star State's capital at the end of October so I'll be able to sample it's vibrant music scene firsthand.

In order to psych myself up for the vacation I pulled out one of my very favorite CDs, SDQ '98, by the late Doug Sahm. Sahm, who hailed from neighboring San Antonio and died at the end of 1999, is missed by anyone who enjoys Country-Rock, Roots Rock or Tex-Mex. He first came to prominence as the leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet in 1965. Oldies fans may remember the band's two big hits "She's About A Mover" and "Mendocino." One of his best known albums, Doug Sahm and Band, was recorded in New York City with both Dr. John and Bob Dylan taking part in the sessions. Sahm is far more than the two hit wonder of the '60s. He has an extensive catalog dating back over forty years.

Much of SDQ '98, Sahm's last release before his death, was recorded in Austin. The album combines a rock and roll attitude with country guitar, electric organ, accordions, saxophones, and a great band that includes keyboard player and accordionist Augie Meyers from the original quintet. On the opening track Sir Doug tells people who are too serious to "Get A Life." His sincerity rings true when he sings a rollicking love song about his favorite city in the whole world, "Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Amsterdam." "The Ballad of Davey Crockett" becomes a fun country-rocker you can dance to all night long. I never heard a band that can make you feel good while playing songs about love gone bad but these good time rockers make you tap your feet on "Give Back the Key to My Heart." There isn't a single misplaced or wasted note anywhere on the album and boredom never sets in as the whole disk clocks in under forty minutes. Play this CD in your car, open up your sunroof, turn up the volume, and enjoy.

Sadly, we won't be able to see Sahm perform during our visit to Austin but there must be somebody playing in town who can make a music lover feel as good as SDQ '98 does.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ringo Starr - Photograph: The Very Best Of Ringo (2007)

I love The Beatles, and by inclusion that love extends to Ringo Starr, but a recent news item indicating that he is a probable inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 as a solo artist is an honor he is not worthy of on his own. Starr wasn't trying to be modest when he said that he is the luckiest man alive to have been in a band with the other three Beatles. He has always been realistic about his place in their history. While he isn't without talent, I believe there are better singers, composers, and drummers. However the other Beatles always defended him and who am I too argue with those three! John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison all continued to use him at times on their solo albums. He played on McCartney's Flaming Pie CD as late as 1997.

I don't believe it is a coincidence that news about Starr's induction into the Hall Of Fame was released at the same time as Photograph: The Very Best Of Ringo, a very nice retrospective of his solo career. Starr made a few good albums early in his post-Beatles life (Beaucoup Of Blues, Ringo, and Goodnight Vienna) and while he continues to make records into the new century most of what he has recorded after the mid-seventies has gone totally unnoticed. Therefore this compilation is all most people will ever want or need.

All of his big hits are present, most notably, "Photograph," "It Don't Come Easy," "Back Off Boogaloo," "You're Sixteen," "Oh, My My," "No-No Song," and "Snookeroo." The fact this is a "best of" CD rather than a greatest hits album allows the twenty song disc to encompass his entire career.

There is a lot of other music on this compilation worth mentioning. Starr's country record was made not long after The Beatles broke up in 1970. It's title track, "Beaucoups of Blues," features excellent background vocals by The Jordanaires. Lennon gave him two tracks, "I'm The Greatest" and "Goodnight Vienna" and Harrison one, "Wrack My Brain." "Act Naturally was originally on the flip side of "Yesterday" in 1965. It was also a country hit for Buck Owens before The Beatles recorded it. Here Starr performs it with Owens in 1989 at Abbey Road studios. There is a fine cover version of the Bruce Channel hit, "Hey Baby," and a 2003 tribute he wrote about his Beatle buddy George, "Never Without You." It's a sentimental but truly satisfying piece of work. Lyrically the most interesting track is "Early 1970" which originally appeared only as the "B" side of "It Don't Come Easy." It's about his former band mates and what he believes his relationship was with each one at the time. The song is definitely dated now but for those of us who remember that era well it's an interesting look back by someone who doesn't usually talk about the demise of the world's most famous rock band. There are annotated and detailed liner notes for each song.

This CD proves that when Starr is working with the right material and collaborators he can make high quality and fun pop music interspersed with a surprising amount of introspection. Starr is not a pretentious man and neither are his songs.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Sterling Harrison - South Of the Snooty Fox (2007)

I'm going to assume you have never heard of Sterling Harrison. Until a few weeks ago neither had I. Harrison was a rhythm & blues singer working out of Los Angeles who had a long career performing in low rent bars and nightclubs for the last couple of decades. Over the course of fifty years he made only a handful of records. The first was recorded in 1955, at age fourteen, before John Lennon met Paul McCartney and before Elvis Presley became a star. His few opportunities to put his voice on vinyl for posterity never produced anything worthwhile yet many who saw his live act swore Harrison's showmanship and vocal skills made him the greatest hidden treasure rhythm & blues ever produced.

In the 60s Harrison opened for Sam Cooke, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, and Otis Redding. While he was performing in Nashville Jimi Hendrix was a member of his band. His music has been described as "deep soul" and his voice conjures up aural images of Redding and Wilson Pickett. Bobby "Blue" Bland's wife was so impressed she made sure Harrison never opened for her husband so he wouldn't be upstaged.

Harrison's CD, South Of The Snooty Fox, was released on August 21, 2007 by Hacktone Records and it has a very interesting back story. He was discovered by Larry Gorodetsky, writer for the TV series Dharma and Greg, and actor Thomas Gibson, the show's male star, while performing in a rundown Los Angeles club. Soon thereafter Gorodetsky brought Steve Berlin, the sax player for Los Lobos, to see a Harrison show. Both were so impressed that they decided to produce an album for him, so in 2001, Gorodetsky and Berlin worked with the vocalist on a ten song disc with the goal of finally making him a star.

Unfortunately, and typical of Harrison's career, luck wasn't about to be a lady. Sadly, the singer was diagnosed with cancer shortly after work on Snooty Fox was completed and he died in 2005. The CD went into limbo until Hacktone, the label who loves to resurrect lost discs, rescued this soul masterpiece from oblivion.

On Snooty Fox Harrison fronts a four piece rock band featuring guitarist Larry Johnson whose lead lines support every song. Johnson is outstanding and his tasteful playing never upstages Harrison's performance. Individually the band members worked with all-stars such as Marvin Gaye and Barry White.

Harrison is neither a musician nor a composer so he put all of his efforts into being a stylist who interpreted other people's songs. There are rave ups, ballads, dance tunes, and even some fairly conventional pop-soul. There are a few of Harrison's concert standards including "There's A Rat Loose In My House," "I Believe In You (You Believe In Me), and "I'll Take Care of You." He covers Brook Benton, Bobby Womack, and Bland. Gorodetsky brought in a Tom Waits song, "The House Where Nobody Lives," to help make the sessions more contemporary.

Sterling Harrison performed live for almost fifty years and loved every minute of his career. Singing was virtually the only job he ever knew. He didn't drink, smoke, or use drugs because he was afraid they would be harmful to his voice. He should have been an R&B giant but he never acquired any of the rewards usually associated with a man of his talent.

You can listen to some audio clips on Hacktone's website to see for yourself what the world has been missing.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

California Transit Authority - Full Circle (2007)

Let me start by getting the only negative out of the way quickly. The name of this band is California Transit Authority. While this really isn't a bad name it may cause some of you to chuckle when you discover the band's leader is former Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine. If he and his new group want to earn some credibility as something more than a tribute band their name isn't going to help. The reason I am making this an issue is because everything else about Full Circle, California Transit Authority's debut album, is a rock-fusion lover's fantasy come true.

While nine of the thirteen tracks are covers of Chicago songs they are not retreads of the sappy ballads that oozed from their lifeless torsos in the 80s. Chicago hasn't rocked like CTA does since the Nixon Administration.

All of the Chicago songs updated here are from the Terry Kath era. None, with the exception of "Mississippi Delta City Blues," appear on any Chicago album past V and even that song is from the same era as V. They performed it live many years before it finally appeared on Kath's last album with the band and it was featured on their 1972 Live In Japan album.

"Make Me Smile" is re-arranged into an instrumental. Guitarist Marc Bonilla's guitar lines replace the vocal making this oldie sound fresher than it has in decades. I found myself paying more attention to the arrangement because there are no vocals. Only a true Chicago aficionado will remember Robert Lamm's "Happy Cause I'm Going Home" from their third album. Here Bonilla stars again using his guitar to replace the original's flute solo. Another huge asset is vocalist Larry Braggs, the front man for Tower Of Power since 2000. With deep apologies to both Kath and Bill Champlin his huge voice has more power and soul than any Chicago vocalist, past or present, has ever possessed. He propels one of Chicago's best early songs, "South California Purples," into a real blues barn burner that almost makes you forget the original. "Colour My World" is completely rearranged into a soul ballad that starts out with some spacey electronic keyboards and guitar replacing the piano solo that segues into a perfect Braggs vocal. It ends with an up tempo Bonilla solo instead of the ballad's famous flute finale. "I'm A Man" is propelled by guests Sheila E. on timbales, Weather Report's Alex Acuna on congas, and a surprisingly unpretentious organ solo by Keith Emerson. CTA does not let the fact they are missing a horn section become a liability.

Too prove this isn't just a Chicago tribute band the disc opens with a cover of Chuck Mangione's "Something Different." There is a surprisingly effective and updated version of The Allman Brothers Band's "Dreams" with Braggs tearing it up and stealing the show. Guest lead vocalist Wes Quaves sings "Several Thousand," a song written by Philadelphian Jim Boggia that first appeared on his band's only CD, the now defunct Four Way Street's Pretzel Park. The final non-Chicago song is a Bonilla original, "Antonio's Love Jungle."

The best thing about the whole affair is that Danny Seraphine is back. It's hard to believe that he was dumped by Chicago in 1990 after twenty-three years as their original drummer, in part, because they felt he lost his chops. Devastated, Seraphine did not play after he left Chicago until he was recently coaxed to do so by his friend, Peter Fish, keyboardist for CTA. He finally pulled his drum kit out, took some lessons from jazz drummer Joe Porcaro to brush up on his skills, and found enough confidence to jump back into a world he now admits he missed.

You can purchase Full Circle here and you can listen to some clips on CTA's website.